Personal Impressions from the 2018 Essay Film Festival

by Andrew Northrop

The 4th edition of the Essay Film Festival, run by Birkbeck’s Institute for the Moving Image, continued the festival’s focus on classic, emerging and lesser-screened works falling under the umbrella ‘essay film’ term. Theorists, academics and critics alike have taken an increasingly strong look at essay filmmaking across the last decade, and the Essay Film Festival’s emergence in 2015 created a necessary space for these oft-challenging works to be championed and rediscovered.

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The festival’s opening lecture was conducted by Laura Rascaroli and celebrated the release of her new book How the Essay Film Thinks (Oxford University Press, 2017). Touching upon Theodor W. Adorno’s writings on the essay, André Bazin’s writing on Chris Marker and the popularity of poetic essay films by Patricio Guzmán and Trinh T. Minh-ha amongst others, Rascaroli proposed a new way of analysing the lyrical and poetic experiments sometimes found in the essay film form, utilising Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf, Italy, 2009) as a case study. Set in Italy’s historic port-town of Genoa, La bocca del lupo blends city portraiture, archive footage, fly-on-the-wall documentary observations and a fictional narrative, painting a non-traditional portrait of an area in decline.

The fictional narrative celebrates the marginalised and rarely seen; charting the unconventional love story between an archetypal, highly-strung tough guy, Enzo, and his wife Mary, a transgender woman and former drug addict. Towards the end of the film there’s a charming sequence where Mary and Enzo sit side-by-side recounting their life together since meeting in prison, their renditions differing due to their distinctive character traits. As we join Enzo in run-down pubs, and observe prostitutes conversing whilst they wait for clients in the town’s lesser-traversed alleyways, the port’s cranes are seen being dismantled. There’s a sense that the film is deconstructing the notion of the travelogue, favouring dysfunction in place of the idyllic. Structurally, La bocca del lupo is reminiscent of José Luis Guerí’s En construcción (Work in Progress, Spain, 2001), another essayistic work exploring an area’s significant urban change via direct engagement with its inhabitants, both films being strong examples of how essay filmmakers can employ a myriad of techniques to defy generic expectations.

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The restoration of Nicole Vedrès’ historic archive film Paris 1900 (France, 1948) screened at Ciné Lumière on the second night of the festival, with a strong introduction by film historian Bernard Eisenschitz. Eisenschitz did a fantastic job of situating the film historically; elaborating both on the post-war period in which it was completed and the Belle Époque period the film gathered its footage from, displaying scans from Vedrès’ picture-book on early French cinema Images du cinéma français (1945) and archival documents pertaining to the making of the film. Paris 1900’s imprint on the essay film form need not be understated; in a time where the technical limitations of technology and cinema made it a difficult project to compile, it successfully demonstrated how archive and found footage could be sculpted in service of new observations and critical debates, leaving a lasting impression on the likes of Chris Marker. Though its style and presentation mimics that of early newsreels, firmly cementing it in the time in which it was made, its most honest and un-flinching pieces of footage still render affect: this is especially true of the sequence with inventor Franz Reichelt jumping from the Eiffel Tower in his wearable parachute, initially hesitating to step off before hastily causing his own death. In these more uncomfortable moments (including footage of men emerging from peep show booths after having clearly masturbated), it becomes clear that it wasn’t Vedrès’ mission to create an entirely clean representation of Parisian modernity, but rather an honest and reflective one, especially given the retrospectively looming presence of upcoming war. It was rewarding to see such an early example of essay filmmaking at the festival, and I overhead a few people expressing gratitude for the restoration after previously only having had access to VHS copies.

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The essay films of Mani Kaul were celebrated as part of the festival’s retrospective on the filmmaker, which coincided with the Courtisane’s own programme Soft Notes on a Sharp Scale: The Rambling Figures of Mani Kaul. The festival offered more than just isolated screenings of 4 of his works – Siddheshwari (India, 1989), Uski Roti (India, 1970), Mati Manas (India, 1984) and Dhrupad (India, 1982) – hosting a range of discussions and introductions alongside them, including those from the Otolith Group, Valentina Vitali and Giulia Battaglia. It’s the Essay Film Festival’s emergence from an academic faculty that provides these opportunities, and there’s consistently a sense of confidence in the chosen speakers, whose introductions feel well-researched and, in this instance, do much to contextualise Kaul’s place in film history.

Seeing Mati Manas (1984), Kaul’s examination of terracotta pottery, on a 35mm print was an undeniable highlight of the festival. I began to recall Laura U. Mark’s observations about intercultural cinema and the role of touch – how tactility is regularly used as an avenue for exploring tradition. Mati Manas follows this vernacular in my eyes, particularly as Kaul’s films often feel like they could be taking place at any point in history, resulting in a stream of consciousness that invites such tangible associations with the image. Kaul has even written that “filming is weaving, textures (texere to weave), things and beings; interweaving for cutting into future movements. The visual verging on the tactile” (p.33, ‘The Director Reflects’, The Rambling Figures of Mani Kaul, Courtisane: Notes on Cinema, 2018). I found myself fully invested in every instance of touch, every brush stroke; cementing a feeling that each artefact was embossed with an aura thanks to Kaul’s careful interweaving of finished products and their constituting labour.

Kaul’s passion for Indian classical music interweaves through much of his work, with Dhrupad (1982) being the most direct engagement. Also shown on 35mm, the film paints a strong picture of the dhrupad form’s duration and required musical prowess, outlining the fundamental elements of the monophonic style and marrying it to historic architecture in India; another example of Kaul’s work feeling timeless. Siddheshwari draws upon a similar approach, juggling multiple timelines during its drifting and free-form profile of Indian singer Siddheshwari Devi, additionally finding itself concerned with the archive; this culminates in an interesting scene where one of Devi’s performances is watched through a television screen in an archive space.

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In the second week of the festival, Pierre Creton’s Va, Toto! (France, 2017) presented a highly personal and proximate mode of essay filmmaking. Eschewing the traditional career path of documentarian filmmakers, Creton is an agricultural worker from rural Normandy first, and a filmmaker second. Creton’s work therefore celebrates events happening within his community and around his daily working life. Though the film takes its name from Toto, an orphaned boar taken in by his neighbour Madeleine, it simultaneously explores two more proximate events: Creton’s partner Vincent Barré’s fascination with monkeys in Shimla, and his neighbour Joseph’s struggles with a mechanical ventilator. Early on, Creton expresses joy in being able to incorporate Madeleine into one of his films, an artistic advance she had formerly declined, and this exuberance towards events is exactly what makes his filmmaking so charming. Rather than simply observing their lives, Creton gives his subjects poetic license, allowing Joseph to explore the nightmares that result from his use of the respiratory machine and following Vincent to meet a doctor to unpack his fascination with monkeys. Va, Toto! feels colloquial and naturally embedded within the community it depicts thanks to Creton’s warmth. Like La bocca del lupo earlier in the festival, the approach to the essay film form here utilises fictional and experimental elements to enhance and elaborate upon the subject matter, resulting in a strong piece of non-fiction storytelling.

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Towards the end of the festival, Barbara McCollough’s Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (USA, 2017) was paired with Jenn Nkiru’s short Rebirth is Necessary (UK, 2017). Nkiru’s short, part of the Black Star series commissioned by Nowness, experiments with a wide range of archive materials, clips from popular culture, and a host of tableaus meticulously crafted for the film. These well-executed moments, including choreographed dancing filmed in South London and South Africa, feel ignited by the archival footage, flowing into the film’s celebratory current alongside music from Sun Ra, Pharaoh Sanders and more. Following the screening, Nkiru expressed an interest in exploring how, for black and diasporic artists, the interconnectedness of black identity can often be felt better than it can be explained and written about, with her film attempting to capture that sentiment.

McCollough’s film concerning Horace Tapscott is equally impressive. As the title indicates, the film treats Tapscott as a ‘griot’ – a West Indian figure whose storytelling and wisdom disseminates information for future generations – honouring his legacy as a tutor and activist, whose work with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra sought to and succeeded in providing an educational impact on LA’s black community. As panellist Stuart Baker pointed out, the film is perhaps the most extensive piece of media regarding his life, given that his recorded work was blacklisted by the authorities due to his involvement in civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s. McCollough started the project after filming the musician in concert during the 70s and succeeds in highlighting Tapscott’s lasting impact by letting him speak for himself, favouring a few comprehensive and candid interviews with Tapscott rather than a barrage of talking heads. McCollough’s approach values Tapscott as a fantastic storyteller, embracing the musician and activist’s endearing personality and ultimately creating a music documentary that stands out in what has been a highly saturated genre in recent years.

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João Moreira Salles’ No intenso agora (In the Intense Now, Brazil, 2017) was one of the more challenging works at the festival. The film has been making an impression on the festival circuit over the past year due to tackling the familiar events of May ’68 (amongst other political upheavals) in a new light, examining the notions of nostalgia and lost hope. Though Salles touches on well-known and popular images and subjects, he distances his examinations from blindly trusting them; repeatedly reminding us that May ’68 ultimately failed, and that its own poster-boy, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who championed revolt but presented little concrete course of action, ultimately lost interest in it. Beyond May ’68, there’s a lot on Salles’ mind here: the Prague Spring, political events in Brazil, and his own family; his mother having filmed home movies in China around the time of its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution but having had little concern for politics. This multitude of analyses makes the little over two-hour runtime feel densely packed, almost claustrophobically so. Some of the ideas and concepts require rumination afterwards, but nonetheless provide interesting discussion, particularly on the role that images play in revolution, with Selles comparing two different personal film reels of unknown attribution concerning the Prague Spring: one author filming the events live from right outside of their window, the other finding their concerns in the television transmissions.

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Johann Lurf’s structuralist examination of the night sky across cinematic history, (Austria, 2017), was the festival’s closing film. Lifting footage from over 550 films, with Lurf intending to periodically return to the film and add to its examples, the film becomes a game of association; what films can you recognise from the barrage of seemingly uniform images? Some have familiar and recognisable scores, voiceovers and looks, and others are lost to the repetitiveness of the starry night sky. There’s an easy comparison here to Thom Andersen’s opus Los Angeles Plays Itself (USA, 2003), in that ★ is lifting examples from a range of films and examining their associations through a shared image or trope opposed to discussing critical reception or box office success. In the case of ★, this new form invites an interstellar drift through the cinematic timeline, one that the dark room of the cinema helps to facilitate. Lurf’s earlier short-form experiments with found footage have resulted in projects such as Twelve Tales Told (Austria, 2014), a look at production company idents, and ★ is a bold and playful follow up perfect for feature-length observation. So playful in fact that, this being my second time writing about the film, the Unicode star used for its title is an entertainingly disruptive being in itself; creating spacing issues and changing the font every time I write after it in Microsoft Word.

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In his seminal book on the essay film, Timothy Corrigan declared that “no single definition of the essayistic will probably ever be sufficiently malleable for its many variations” (p.15, The Essay Film, From Montaigne, After Marker, Oxford University Press, 2011), and this year’s edition of the Essay Film Festival housed the breadth of those variations – those discussed above and more. Whether it be those that choose poetic and lyrical refrains as an outlet, those that address highly personal circumstances, or those that deconstruct established images and synthesise them towards new critical debates, it’s clear that the Essay Film Festival is the perfect environment for the myriad of forms to converge and flourish, whatever the total definition may be.

 

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