All hail? Jean-Marie Teno's "Chief!" plays in Pacific Film Archive's essay film series. (Photo courtesy PFA)

Essay Films at the Pacific Film Archive

David Winks Gray January 30, 2009

The term "essay film" has a protean quality, shifting shape as quickly as the films that it usually designates. The essay film became an identifiable form of filmmaking in the 1950s and ’60s, and its importance stemmed from its engagement with history, and its challenge to the dominant forms of telling history. The essay film has often lived on the margins, but its importance, then as now, is tied not to its position inside or outside of the power structure, but to its potential for questioning that power. The Pacific Film Archive’s current series of "essay films," a collection of diverse work, offers the viewer an opportunity to adapt to the peculiar searching, questioning tone of these films.

"The Way of the Termite: The Essay in Cinema" is a traveling series curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin, a member of the Dziga Vertov group with Jean-Luc Godard in the early ’70s, and the maker of several later essayistic films on his own. The series takes its title from Manny Farber’s famous division between "termite art" and "white elephant art," made in an essay that Gorin cites in his program notes. He aligns film essayists with termite artists, eating through the boundaries that would contain them.

Essay films straddle the boundary between documentary and fiction, fitting comfortably in neither genre. Or, more precisely, a particular essay film may fit superficially into one of the two categories, as Humphrey Jennings’s A Diary for Timothy does as a documentary, and Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare does as a fiction, to take two examples from the PFA’s program. This allows each film to be discussed within the dichotomy of documentary/fiction, but as this series suggests, we may learn more from contrasting the two films within the category of essay. The difference between the E.M. Forster-penned, poetic propaganda of Jennings’ film and the faux-naïf, subversively comic utterances of Tahimik’s highlights the vastly different rhetorical and political ends the essay film can attain.

But what are the qualities that define an essay film? As in written essays, the films tend to marry the personal voice of a guiding narrator (often the director) with a wide swath of other voices. They usually address real events, but do so in a fragmentary, non-systematic way, probing and searching rather than channeling the authoritative "voice of God" that marks so many documentaries. This fragmented approach, combined with the play between the singular personal voice of the director and the multitude of voices that make up the film, makes the essayistic form particularly suited for addressing history in a way that subverts or amends the received, dominant narratives.

These are all tendencies, not hard-set rules, and one of the strengths of the PFA’s series is that it combines recognized cornerstones of the category, like Chris Marker’s traveling meditation on mortality and memory, Sans Soleil, with more idiosyncratic choices, like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. One of a handful of silent films screening, Vertov’s film forgoes any traditional narration, but its relentless investigation of the technology of filmmaking carries an unmistakable voice that does indeed move like an essay. This reminds us once again of the Manny Farber essay cited by Gorin, where Farber writes that, "A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."

All hail the tapeworms and fungi honored in this series, whose films defy even the category of the essay under which they stand.

A Few Recommendations

Following Tout Va Bien, which starred Jane Fonda, Godard and Gorin made the slightly mean-spirited yet fascinating Letter to Jane, which proceeds through a series of essayistic, meandering "detours" to analyze a photograph of Fonda standing with North Vietnamese soldiers. The hour-long film works as a sort of master seminar in both semiotics and scrutiny, with Godard and Gorin reading the voiceover. Gorin was slated to be in attendance at the PFA for screenings of three different films, but his appearances were cancelled; it would have been a great opportunity to hear Gorin speak about this film more than thirty-five years after its making.

Jean-Marie Teno, whose work remains underseen in North America, has been critiquing the lingering effects of colonialism in Africa for decades. His 1999 film Chief! opens with the capture of a teenage boy caught stealing chickens in a small village in Cameroon. After the villagers turn the boy over to the local chief for punishment, Teno launches into an episodic consideration of the fetishistic treatment of "chiefs" in all echelons of Cameroonian society, from the president-for-life Paul Biya, all the way down to the husband’s position as ruler over his wife in marriage. Teno’s work combines humor and outrage while showing both the resistance and complicity that confront the autocrat, and encapsulating the essay film’s resistance to dominant histories. The PFA screens Teno’s film with Les Maitres Fous, a short by the famous French cine-ethnographer, and inventor of cinema verité, Jean Rouch.

If you choose to see only one film in the series, make it Kidlat Tahimik’s 1977 Perfumed Nightmare, a hilarious, and still-relevant critique of neocolonialism. Tahimik plays the role of "Kidlat," an autobiographical character who travels from the Philippines to Europe, the birthplace of his idol, Werner Von Braun. In France and Germany, a series of events, including his employment with an American chewing gum magnate, lead to his disillusionment with European and American-style capitalism. Tahimik’s film employs an intentionally amateur aesthetic (similar to that used in the more recent essay-films of Malaysian Amir Muhammad), and he has referred to his method as "cups of gas filmmaking," a metaphor that aligns his work with the Brazilian "aesthetics of hunger." But Tahimik’s sense of humor is all his own, and he employs it here to sustain a scathing attack on the neocolonial capitalism that threatens to consume the people he meets, both in the Philippines and Europe.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum cites poet Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 short The House is Black as the founding film in the Iranian New Wave, despite its being made long before most of the filmmakers of the New Wave began their careers. Farrokhzad’s work clearly did influence later New Wave filmmakers, particularly Abbas Kiarostami, who includes the reading of one of her poems in The Wind Will Carry Us. The House is Black, a documentary portrait of an Iranian leper colony, combines a poetic voiceover read by Farrokhzad with a more factual voiceover read by a male narrator. These voiceovers create a portrait of life that on one level pleads for better medical care to prevent leprosy, while simultaneously portraying the lepers as beautiful. It screens with a more recent Iranian film, Moslem Mansouri’s Trial, which follows a group of underground amateur filmmakers, who make films illegally after the end of the work day.

The PFA’s series continues through April, and the program for April will be announced in late February.

David Winks Gray is SF360’s current writing intern and an MA student at San Francisco State University.

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