The secret history of the essay film

Charting the resurgence of ‘sort of documentaries’ to celebrate Chris Marker, king of the essay film

Chris Marker, Demo 18 (Paris, 2006)
Chris Marker, Demo 18 (Paris, 2006) Courtesy: Wexner Center for the Arts, The Ohio State University, Columbus, and Peter Blum Gallery, New York

“Essay films are arguably the most innovative and popular form of filmmaking since the 1990s,” wrote Timothy Corrigan in his notable 2011 book, The Essay Film. True, perhaps, but mention of the genre to your average joe won’t spark the instant recognition of today’s romcoms, sci-fis and period dramas. The thing is, essay films have been around since the dawn of cinema: they emerged not long after the Lumière brothers recorded the first ever motion pictures of Lyonnaise factory workers in 1894, yet their definition is still ambiguous.

They are similar to documentary and non-fiction film in that they are often based in reality, using words, images and sounds to convey a message. But according to Chris Darke – co-curator of the Whitechapel Gallery’s current retrospective of the great essay filmmaker Chris Marker – it is “the personal aspect and style of address” that makes the essay film distinct. It is this flexibility that has appealed to contemporary filmmakers, permitting a fresh, nuanced viewing experience.

Geoff Andrew, a senior programmer at the BFI who helped curate last year’s landmark essay film season, explained, “they are sort of documentaries, sort of non-fiction films.” The issue is that some filmmakers try to provide an objective point of view when it is just not possible. “There’s always somebody manipulating footage and manipulating reality to present some sort of message.” Andrew continued, “So, in a way, all documentaries are essay films.”

But the essay film is particularly resurgent these days, with filmmakers like Michael Moore, Werner Herzog, and Nick Broomfield molding the genre in their own ways. Their popularity isn’t just due to incendiary topics like men getting eaten by bears as in Herzog’s Grizzly Man and high school massacres as in Moore’s Bowling for Columbine; essay films are capable of compelling beauty. Now, with the Whitechapel Gallery’s retrospective of the late Frenchman, Chris Marker, arguably the greatest essay filmmaker there’s ever been, we take a look at the essay film’s secret history.

1909 - D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat

Considered by some to be the first essay film ever, A Corner in Wheat is a little subversive thorn in the side of the man. Lasting only 14 minutes, it tells the tale of a ruthless crop gambler who amasses riches by monopolising the wheat market, exploits the agricultural poor, and is promptly killed under a pile of his own grain. Think twice, greedy capitalists.

1929 - Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera

“The film drama is the opium of the people,” proclaimed Soviet film pioneer Dziga Vertov, “down with Bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios.” He was the most radical of his fellow Soviet filmmaker compatriots, and Man with a Movie Camera was his masterpiece. In it, he tried to create an “international language of cinema” through a beguiling mix of jump cuts, split screens and superimpositions. Vertov’s idea was to uncover the artifice of filmmaking, with one scene of the film depicting a cameraman inside a giant beer.

1940 - Hans Richter’s The Film Essay

The term “essay film” was originally coined by German artist Hans Richter, who wrote in his 1940 paper, The Film Essay: “The film essay enables the filmmaker to make the ‘invisible’ world of thoughts and ideas visible on the screen... The essay film produces complex thought – reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality, but can also be contradictory, irrational, and fantastic.” So while World War II was blazing away, a new cinema was born.

1982 - Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil

You know that this brilliant, freewheeling travelogue is something special when it suggests that Pac-Man is “a perfect graphic metaphor for the human condition.” It takes in anti-colonial struggles, sumo wrestling, a volcanic eruption in Iceland, the antiquities of the Vatican, Marker’s love of cats and more. An unnamed female narrates a circuitous journey from Africa to Japan, in an engaging style never seen before. Some might say he laid down a marker.

1993 - Derek Jarman’s Blue

Diagnosed with HIV and beginning to lose his eyesight, Jarman decided to turn his illness into his art. Although the premise of nothing but a dim, blue background accompanied by voiceovers for 79 minutes might not seem enthralling, it really is. Jarman recalls memories of his past lovers, and his current life of endless pill-popping, with a poignant score by Brian Eno and Simon Fisher Turner.

1998 - Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema

Comprised of hundreds of clips of films, music and poetry, this eight part series – that took over a decade to make – remained a secret seen only at a precious few film festivals thanks to the gargantuan amount of rights needed to be cleared. Histoire(s) du cinema is an epic of free association whose central theme is voyeurism, since Godard believes that cinema consists of a man looking at a woman. Harriet Andersson, topless and alluring on a beach in Ingmar Bergman’s Monika, is one of many examples.

2004 - Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11

The most successful documentary at the US box office ever, Fahrenheit 9/11 is a prime example of the essay film’s wild popularisation (it also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes). Michael Moore’s swipe at the Republican jugular was a classic example of the essay filmmaker’s prominence, outrightly mocking President George W. Bush and questioning the fairness of his election. Disney refused to distribute the film, and the rest is history.

2010 - Errol Morris’ Tabloid

Tabloid is the outrageous story of a former Miss Wyoming, Joyce McKinney, who was alleged to have kidnapped an American mormon missionary living in England, handcuffed him to a bed in a Devonshire cottage and made him a sex slave. The woman claimed she was saving the man from a cult, but then fleed to Canada wearing a red wig, where she posed as part of a mime troupe. As ever, Errol Morris deftly offers alternate explanations, which led to McKinney suing him after the release of the film.

2014 - Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational

After touring galleries of the world and a recent stint at the ICA, Hito Steyerl’s How Not To Be Seen made waves as “an art for our times”. It is a disembowelling satire that mocks the idea that it we can become invisible and have genuine privacy, in this digital age. If we want to disappear, it suggests, we should become poor, or hide in plain sight, or get “disappeared” by the authorities.

Chris Marker: A Grin Without a Cat is on until 22 June at Whitechapel Gallery

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