Adele Horne is the filmmaker behind The Tailenders (POV 2006), which examines missionary activity, the loss of languages around the world and global capitalism in an unusual and essayistic way. Adele, winner of the “Truer Than Fiction” Award at the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards, writes in with her thoughts on the history of essay films.
I think of my film The Tailenders as an essay film (with a strong observational bent). In fact, all of my films are in some way essayistic. The essay film is a sub-genre of documentary. It’s a mode that allows the filmmaker to meditate on a theme or explore an idea, rather than being limited to representing real (visible) events. In 1940, Hans Richter wrote a manifesto entitled “The Film Essay: a New Form of Documentary Film,” in which he imagined a new genre of film that would make “problems, thoughts, even ideas” perceptible and would “render visible what is not visible.” In 1948, Alexandre Astruc coined the term “camera-stylo” to suggest a new means of writing through cinema, with the camera serving as a pen, creating arguments, meditations and inquiries with as much range of form as exists in the written word.
Both Richter and Astruc were asking: What if a film doesn’t have to enact a dramatic story or represent real events? Could a film be an exploration of an idea? They turned to the hybrid literary form of the essay as a model. Michel de Montaigne originated the modern literary essay in the 16th century, with writing that combined anecdote and philosophical speculation. He called these writings “essais,” from “essayer,” meaning “to attempt, to try.” I like to think of essay films as “films that try.” They grapple with a set of questions or try to come to an understanding of a difficult subject. Their forms are idiosyncratic and variable and usually found in the editing room, rather than scripted in advance.
What I like about making essay films is that they allow me to think through filmmaking — making the film is an act of exploration, in which the outcome is not predetermined.
I am currently teaching a course on Essay Filmmaking at the California Institute of the Arts. In it, we look at various strategies used by essay filmmakers, which I have categorized as follows:
Sleuthing/Examining Material Evidence
The Filmmaker as Collector
The Art of Straying
Voice and Text
For those interested in learning more about the essay film form, a good place to start is Peter Thompson’s excellent website.
Here’s a list of five of my favorite “essay films.”
1. Perfumed Nightmare by Kidlat Tahimik (1977)
A brilliant hybrid of essay and fiction. Charming, funny and ironic exploration of the impact of colonialism on a village in the Philippines. A film like no other.
2. The Gleaners and I by Agnes Varda (2001)
Varda effortlessly moves between an analysis of waste and consumption in contemporary France and a meditation on her practice as a gleaner of images and her own aging body.
3. The Sky Turns by Mercedes Alvarez (2004)
This beautiful and masterful film is a portrait of the filmmaker’s hometown in Spain, where she was the last person to have been born, and a profound meditation on the passage of time.
4. Route One by Robert Kramer (1989)
A road trip down the east coast of the United States with an incredibly charismatic friend of the filmmaker, who travels with an open heart and a wondering mind.
5. Images of the World and Inscription of War Harun Farocki (1989)
Farocki weaves an elaborate and dense meditation on the connection between photographing things and destroying them.