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Essay Film Vs Documentary Movies

For a brief, almost unreal couple of hours last July, in amid the kittens and One Direction-mania trending on Twitter, there appeared a very surprising name – that of semi-reclusive French film-maker Chris Marker, whose innovative short feature La Jetée (1962) was remade in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. A few months earlier, art journal e-flux staged The Desperate Edge of Now, a retrospective of Adam Curtis's TV films, to large audiences on New York's Lower East Side. The previous summer, Handsworth Songs (1986), an experimental feature by the Black Audio Film Collective Salman Rushdie had once attacked as obscurantist and politically irrelevant, attracted a huge crowd at Tate Modern when it was screened shortly after the London riots.

Marker, Curtis, Black Audio: all have made significant contributions to the development of an increasingly powerful and popular kind of moving-image production: the essay film. Currently being celebrated in a BFI Southbank season entitled The Art of the Essay Film – curated by Kieron Corless of Sight and Sound magazine – it's an elusive form with an equally elusive and speculative history. Early examples proposed by scholars include DW Griffith's A Corner in Wheat (1909), Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Jean Vigo's A Propos de Nice (1930), but some of its animating principles were identified in a key text, "The Film Essay" (1940) by the German artist Hans Richter, which called for documentaries "to find a representation for intellectual content" rather than merely "beautiful vistas".

Essay films, unlike conventional documentaries, are only partly defined by their subject matter. They tend not to follow linear structures, far less to buttonhole viewers in the style of a PowerPoint presentation or a bullet-pointed memo; rather, in the spirit of Montaigne or even Hazlitt, they are often digressive, associative, self-reflexive. Just as the word essay has its etymological roots in the French "essai" – to try – essay film-makers commonly foreground the process of thought and the labour of constructing a narrative rather than aiming for seamless artefacts that conceal the conceptual questions that went into their making. Incompletion, loose ends, directorial inadequacy: these are acknowledged rather than brushed over.

Aldous Huxley once claimed an essay was "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything". Essay films exploit this freedom and possibility, exulting in the opportunity to avoid the hermetic specialisation that characterises much academic scholarship, and to draw on ethnography, autobiography, philosophy and art history. A case in point is Otolith I (2003) by the Turner prize-nominated Otolith Group, whose co-founder Kodwo Eshun will deliver a keynote speech at BFI Southbank: it uses the mass demonstrations against the second Iraq conflict in London as an occasion to think about political collectivity, and deploys an elusive, eerily compelling compound of science fiction, travelogue, epistolary writing and leftist history to do so.

This roaming or tentacular approach to structure can be seen as a kind of territorial raid. Or perhaps essay film-makers are aesthetic refugees fleeing the austerities and repressions of dominant forms of cinema. It's certainly striking how many essay films grapple with landscape and cartography: Patrick Keiller's London (1994) uses a fixed camera, a droll fictional narrator named Robinson and near-forensic socio-economic analysis to explore the "problem" of England's capital; Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is an extraordinary montage film by Thom Andersen in which, sampling almost exclusively (unlicensed) clips from 20th-century cinema and with drily damning commentary, he critiques representations of his home city.

Essay films sometimes exhibit a quality of vagrancy and drift, as if they are not wholly sure of what they want to say or of the language they need to say it, which may stem from their desire to let subject matter determine – or strongly influence – filmic form. Here, as in the frequent willingness to blur the distinction between documentation and fabulation, the essay film has much in common with "creative non-fiction". The literary equivalents of Hartmut Bitomsky, director of a mysterious investigation of dust, and Patricio Guzmán whose Nostalgia for the Light (2010) draws on astronomy to chart the poisonous legacies of Pinochet's coup d'etat in Chile, are writers such as Sven Lindqvist, Eduardo Galeano and Geoff Dyer. Perhaps it's no coincidence that one of the most celebrated modern creative non-fiction authors was the subject of an equally ruminative, resonant essay film – Grant Gee's Patience (After Sebald) (2011).

Essay film-makers – among them the Dziga Vertov Group (whose members included Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) or the brilliant Santiago Álvarez – are often motivated by political concerns, but their work is never couched in the language of social realism or the journalistic dispatch. It is never purely utilitarian and is more likely to offer invitations to thought than clarion calls for action: Godard and Gorin's Letter to Jane (1972) decodes at length a single still photograph of Jane Fonda on a trip to Vietnam; Black Audio Film Collective's Handsworth Songs proposes that behind the blaring headlines of riot footage in the British media there lie the "ghosts of other stories"; Harun Farocki's Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988) explores the interplay of technology, war and surveillance. Essay films can be playful, but even when they are serious – as these three are – their approaches, at once rigorous and open-ended, are thrilling rather than pedagogic.

Just as literary critics used to lament that critical theory was taken more seriously in France than in the UK, the renown of essayists such as Marker, Godard and Agnès Varda (whose The Gleaners and I, a witty and moving meditation on personal, technological and socio-political obsolescence is a masterpiece) has served to obscure the range and history of British contributions to the genre: the sonically exploratory, surrealism-tinged likes of Basil Wright's Song of Ceylon (1934) and Humphrey Jennings's Listen to Britain (1942); Mike Dibb and John Berger's Ways of Seeing (1972), which bears the imprint of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin; BS Johnson's self-deconstructing Fat Man on a Beach (1973); Derek Jarman's exquisitely crepuscular Blue (1992), in which the director talks about and through his fading eyesight; and Marc Karlin's resonant disquisition about cultural amnesia in For Memory (1986).

Some of these films started life on television, but these days it is the gallery sector that is more likely to commission or screen essay films, which are attracting ever more sizable audiences, especially younger people who have been weaned on cheap editing software, platforms such as Tumblr and the archival riches at YouTube and UbuWeb. Visually literate and semiotically savvy, they have tools – conceptual as well as technological – not only to critique and curate (moving) images, but to capture and assemble them. Having grown up in the era of LiveJournal and Facebook, they are also used to experimenting with personal identity in public; RSS feeds and news filters have brought them to a point where the essay film's fascination with investigating social mediation and the construction of reality is second nature. It could well be that the essay film – for so long a bastard form, an unclassifiable and barely studied hybrid, opaque even to cinephiles – is ready to come into its own.

• Thought in Action: The Art of the Essay Film is at BFI Southbank, London SE1, until 28 August.

Webster defines documentary as “a movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events.” The conventional thinking about documentaries is that they document reality, represent the objective truth and do not include fictional elements.

Certainly, these are some of the qualities we expect from journalistically driven current affairs docs made for TV where the editorial impetus is to strive for factual and balanced presentations.

But as any serious film buff knows, the documentary form has been shifting its shape ever since the earliest days of cinema. The Scottish documentary trailblazer John Grierson who first coined the term documentary in 1926 defined it as “A creative treatment of actuality.” Commenting on Robert Flaherty’s early anthropological films (Nanook of the North 1922; Moana 1926), which were more docufiction than documentation, Grierson anticipated that documentary is as much about making art as it is about presenting facts.

If you’re an emerging doc maker, you should be watching as many documentaries as you can. Study documentaries of all styles and genres to inspire your own work as non-fiction storyteller. And while you’re at it, read up on what film scholars and movie critics have to say about how these films are constructed.

San Francisco-based film educator and documentary consultant Bill Nichols has produced an impressive body of scholarly works on documentary and its variety of forms and styles. In his 2010 classic text, “Introduction to Documentary,” Nichols distilled the many sub-genres of documentary down to six styles or modes.

Watch: How to Structure a Documentary

The Expository Mode

The expository mode is the most familiar. Expository docs are heavily researched and are sometimes referred to as essay films because they aim to educate and explain things — events, issues, ways of life, worlds and exotic settings we know little about. Typical production elements include interviews, illustrative visuals, some actuality, perhaps some graphics and photos and a ‘voice of God’ narration track. Scripted narration connects the story elements and often unpacks a thesis or an argument.

Expository docs are heavily researched and are sometimes referred to as essay films because they aim to educate and explain things — events, issues, ways of life, worlds and exotic settings we know little about.

The “Why We Fight” (1942-43) series of propaganda films commissioned by the government to explain U.S. involvement in World War II were made in classic expository style. Other examples include current affairs docs made for “60 Minutes,” History Channel programs, and nature films such as “The Blue Planet.” The sweeping historical documentaries of Ken Burns (“Mark Twain,” 2001; “The Dust Bowl,” 2012) fall into the expository category.

Suggested Viewing

“The Plow That Broke the Plains” Pare Lorentz 1936; “City of Gold” NFB 1949; “The Civil War” Ken Burns 1990;

The Observational Mode

Observational documentary is probably the most analyzed mode of them all. The form is also referred to as cinema verité, direct cinema or fly-on-the-wall documentary.

Observational docs strive for cinematic realism. The gritty realism produced by actuality filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s was achieved through technological advances made ten years earlier: faster lenses for shooting in low light conditions and smaller cameras that could now be handheld and were no longer tethered to a sound recorder with an audio sync cable. An unobtrusive crew of two could shoot almost anywhere with available light and follow actuality as it unfolded. Up until then, bulky film production gear required finicky technical setups and careful staging of the action. 

Boston director Frederick Wiseman, considered to be the master of observational cinema, is known for his groundbreaking studies of institutions and big social issues (“High School,” 1968; “Public Housing,” 1997). Wiseman resists categorization of his work: “Cinema verité is just a pompous French word.”

In Wiseman’s films, carefully edited and arranged actuality scenes speak for themselves. There is no intervention by the filmmaker, no interview questions, no commentary to camera, no narration. On location, Wiseman records the sound and handles the microphone. Freed from looking through the viewfinder, the director is able to pay better attention to what’s going on around him and anticipate the action. Wiseman communicates with his cameraperson through pre-arranged hand signals and directs by pointing his microphone at what he wants filmed.

“Fly-on-the-wall is the most demeaning [term],” Wiseman tells POV magazine. “None of the flies I know are conscious.” Although not fond of fancy film terms, the curmudgeonly octogenarian is considered to be the most authentic maker of observational documentaries.

Suggested Viewing

“Primary Drew Associates” 1960; “Don’t Look Back” D.A. Pennebaker, 1967; “Salesmen” Albert and David Maysles, 1969

The Participatory Mode

In “Introduction to Documentary,” Bill Nichols describes participatory documentary as “[when] the encounter between filmmaker and subject is recorded and the filmmaker actively engages with the situation they are documenting.”

The participatory mode aims for immediacy and often presents the filmmaker’s point of view.

Michael Moore’s documentaries are primarily vehicles for his social commentary. A dynamic shooting style that captures ‘man in the street’ interviews as well as ambush grillings of the powerful, staged sequences featuring the director and mostly one-sided narration are trademarks of Moore’s point of view docs, including “Sicko” – slamming the health care system — and “Bowling for Columbine” — lobbying for gun control.

The investigative work of filmmaker Nick Bloomfield also falls into the participatory mode (“Kurt and Courtney,” 1998; “Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” 2014). Bloomfield shoots with a skeletal crew handling audio mixer and boom mic himself. He often rolls camera on the way to the next location and gives anticipatory commentary to camera when he’s not conducting gun and run interviews.

Suggested Viewing

“Chronicle of a Summer” Jean Rouche 1960; “Sherman’s March” Ross McElwee 1986;  “Supersize Me” Morgan Spurlock 2004; “Approaching the Elephant” Amanda Wilder 2014

The Reflexive Mode

Documentaries made in reflexive mode provoke audiences to “question the authenticity of documentary in general,” writes Bill Nichols. Reflexive docs challenge assumptions and expectations about the form itself.

Dziga Vertov, the Russian film pioneer makes it clear in “The Man With A Movie Camera” that what the audience is watching is not reality but rather a construction of reality. The film is silent and contains no interstitial titles. Ostensibly a ‘city documentary’ that chronicles a day in the life of a metropolis, the 1929 avant-garde classic includes scenes of the film’s cameraman and how he went about getting his shots. Also intercut with scenes of factories, trains and crowded streets are short sequences of a diligent film editor working with individual frames from the film. By clever juxtaposition of scenes and images, Vertov gives us a sense that the film we are watching is being assembled right before our eyes.

Rob Reiner’s “This is Spinal Tap,” a ‘mockumentary’ about a fictional heavy metal band in decline, also falls into the reflexive mode. Fake interviews, fake concert clips, improvised dialogue and a ‘shaky cam’ shooting style are Reiner’s devices for taking satirical pokes both at heavy metal culture and at rock documentary conventions. In Reiner’s well-observed 1985 cult classic audiences recognize the trademarks of the ‘rockumentary’ genre — intra-band conflict, decline in popularity, the band clawing their way back to the top and the final concert.

Suggested Viewing

“Exit Through the Gift Shop” Banksy 2010; “The Spaghetti Story” BBC 1957

The Poetic Mode

Webster defines poetry as “literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.”

You can apply this definition almost perfectly to many documentaries created in the poetic mode — the aim is to create an impression or a mood rather than argue a point. The poetic form also referred to as abstract or avant-garde can be traced back to the popular City Symphony film movement of the 1920s out of which came such classics as Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” (1927).

Filmmakers operating in the poetic mode typically emphasize cinematic values over content to create visual poetry. Shot design, composition and rhythm achieved in editing are hallmarks of the genre. The narrative, if there is one, is expressed visually rather than rhetorically. Dutch filmmaker Joris Iven’s City Symphony classic “Rain” (1929) is a shining example of the poetic style that shows how a rainstorm transforms the Dutch metropolis Amsterdam.

Suggested Viewing

“Play of Light: Black, White, Grey” Laslo Moholy-Nagy 1930; “N.Y.,N.Y.” Francis Thomson 1957; “Sans Soleil” (Sunless) Chris Marker 1983; “Koyaanisqatsi” Godfrey Reggio 1982

The Performative Mode

The performative mode of documentary is the direct opposite of the observational where unobtrusive observation of the subject is the director’s aim.

Performative documentary emphasizes the filmmaker’s own involvement with the subject. The filmmaker shows a larger political or historical reality through the window of her own experience. Rather than rely on the expository approach, the rhetoric of persuasion, the performative filmmaker becomes a personal guide who shows it and tells it like it is with raw emotion.

In performative mode the filmmaker gives a strong “what’s it like to be there” perspective on a world, a culture or an event in history that the audience would otherwise never know. In “Tongues Untied” (1989) the late African-American filmmaker Marlon Riggs combines actuality, re-enactments and his personal account to shine a light on black gay American identity.

Also in the performative category are the works of so-called ‘found footage’ filmmakers like Hungarian Péter Forgács (“Danube Exodus,” 1999). His films are created from home movies and recovered personal records to tell the story of ordinary people whose lives are about to be overtaken by catastrophic, historic events.

Suggested Viewing

“Night And Fog” Alain Resnais 1955; “Paris Is Burning” Jenny Livingston 1991; “Forest of Bliss” Robert Gardner 1986

Framing Your Doc

Every documentary style or mode has its distinguishing characteristics, but most docs are not made exclusively in any one mode, but rather combine more than one style. For example, it can be argued that Michael Moore’s films straddle both participatory and performative modes. And masters of direct cinema Albert and David Maysles who were not afraid to include in their films off topic interactions between crew and subject were clearly operating in participatory as well as in observational mode.

To enrich your understanding of the documentary form, look for the works of these masters online. Also, be on the lookout for documentary fests near you, where screenings often include Q & As with filmmakers whose insights will inform your own approach to crafting non-fiction stories for the screen.


Movie critic Richard Brody in the title of a New Yorker film review avows that “All Documentaries Are Participatory Documentaries” (The New Yorker - February 27, 2015). As evidence for his claim, Brody points to the 1975 observational documentary classic “Grey Gardens” by the Maysles Brothers. Although renowned for their unobtrusive ‘fly-on-the-wall’ shooting style, Albert and David Maysles did not try to hide the fact that there was filmmaking going on, a distinguishing feature of the participatory mode but a no-no in observational documentary. In “Gardens,” a film about two reclusive, eccentric relatives of Jackie Onassis, the filmmakers are part of the action because the two subjects, Big and Little Edie Bouvier-Beale, acknowledge their chroniclers in almost every scene.

“Each of them looks to the filmmakers to validate her position in a dispute with the other,” writes Brody. “Both of them perform expressly for the filmmakers’ camera and sound recording.”

Taking Brody’s argument to its logical conclusion that all docs are participatory, we can infer, and many commentators do, that even when filmmakers try to make themselves invisible during shooting, the presence of the camera will inevitably alter what happens in front of the lens. Brody insists that “the modern documentary filmmaker is an inescapable participant in on-camera events.”

Peter Biesterfeld is a seasoned script-to-screen television and video producer and trainer with a specialty in documentary, current affairs, reality television and educational production.

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