The Essay Film Festival returns in March with a wide-ranging selection of formally ambitious and politically engaged films of past and present. 

The festival takes place 25-31 March, with screenings and events at the ICA and Birkbeck Cinema, and additional special events at the BFI and other venues. To explore the BFI’s collection of free films in their Arts on Film series, click here.


Video content from past years

Lebanese artist Rania Stephan’s intimate conversational portrait of Syrian writer and activist Samar Yazbek explores the limits of language in the face of atrocity and displacement, while her Beirut street-scenes and her mixing of private and public archives ask important questions about memory and witnessing.

The inherent violence of colonialism and its cultural legacies are examined by Med Hondo’s essay on the lives of immigrant workers in France and by Assia Djebar’s poetic reworking of archive images shot in the Maghreb. 

Innovative and creative approaches to anthropological investigation are proposed by Ruchir Joshi’s study of Bengal’s traditional wandering musicians and by Jocelyne Saab’s lovingly crafted portrayals of Egypt in a time of transition.

A new essay film by Lis Rhodes combines aesthetic complexity and social analysis, while a collaboration between researcher Ian Christie and filmmaker Chiemi Shimada casts a fresh eye on Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s time spent in Mexico in 1931.

Finally, two daytime events at Birkbeck Cinema are devoted respectively to short films made by Brazilian documentarist Aloysio Raulino and to the rich archive of essay films produced by the Arts Council. 

Experimental and political, the essay film calls into question the language of representation and operates at the forefront of cinema’s critical engagement with the world.

The Essay Film Festival is proposed by Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image and the ICA, with the support of CHASE Doctoral Training Partnership and in collaboration with Open City Documentary Festival. 

Come and join us!

On behalf of the Essay Film Festival: Matthew Barrington, Michael Temple, and Emma Yapp; Kieron Corless, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Janet McCabe, Raquel Morais, and Laura Mulvey. 

Essay Film Festival Programme 2023

UK PREMIERE In Fields of Words: Conversations with Samar Yazbek + Q&A with Rania Stephan

Saturday 25 March, 4:15pm, ICA

Rania Stephan’s intimate portrait of Syrian writer and activist Samar Yazbek.

Lebanon/War + Memories for a Private Eye #1

Saturday 25 March, 6:15pm, ICA

A double-bill of works by Beirut-based artist Rania Stephan focusing on her native Lebanon.

UK premiere of restored classic Indian essay film

Sunday 26 March, 3:30pm, ICA

Ruchir Joshi’s self-reflexive account of his anthropological study of a group of Bauls, Bengal’s traditional wandering musicians.

Ruchir Joshi: short films and conversation with Tony Cokes

Sunday 26 March, 6:30pm, ICA

This programme features two short city films that Ruchir Joshi made following the three-year experience of Eleven Miles.

Essay films from the Arts Council archive: a programme of screenings and discussions

Monday 27 March, 11:00-17:00, Birkbeck Cinema

Reflecting some of the variety of films supported by the Arts Council, this session will present a number of rarely screened works from this collection, and invite a series of experts and researchers to contextualise and explore this fascinating body of work.

UK PREMIERE Disquiet + Introduction

Tuesday 28 March, 6:40pm, ICA

Lis Rhodes’ latest essay film, made against the backdrop of the pandemic, continues her ongoing project of documenting the progressive eradication of justice, equality and individual liberties as a consequence of neoliberal capitalism.

Non-Aligned Film Archives present: a programme dedicated to Insurrectionnelle (Farouk Beloufa, 1972) + introduction

Tuesday 28 March, 8:50pm, ICA

Farouk Beloufa’s Insurrectionnelle (Algeria 1972) is the starting point of this programme from the Non-Aligned Film Archive series, a project aiming at sharing films that have been marginalised from dominant cinematic narratives.

Les Bicots-nègres, vos voisins in 35mm + introduction

Wednesday 29 March, 8:45pm, ICA

A film about the experiences and reflections of migrant labourers living and working in France across the 1970s, dispelling the myths associated with conditions in ‘the motherland’.

A tribute to the work of Jocelyne Saab presented by Mathilde Rouxel

Thursday 30 March, 6:45pm, ICA

Mathilde Rouxel, author of the first monograph dedicated to Jocelyne Saab and the person responsible for the preservation and distribution of her work, presents three films made by Saab in Egypt in the 1970s and 1980s.

Aloysio Raulino: short films and conversation with Victor Guimarães

Friday 31 March, 13:00-17:00, Birkbeck Cinema

This session is dedicated to a series of short films Aloysio Raulino directed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They tell us of an urban reality marked by strong class divisions, by contrasts between ideas of progress and modernity and the real living conditions of the Brazilian black population and working class.

UK PREMIERE A Trip to Tetlapayac + discussion

Friday 31 March, 6:45pm, ICA

Filmmakers Ian Christie and Chiemi Shimada present a historical exploration of Sergei Eisenstein’s time in Mexico in 1931.