Film Essay As Form


How do we make sense of the polemical term ‘essay film’ as well as the phrase ‘double helix,’ an expression coined by the late filmmaker Harun Farocki? Since the 1960s, artists have explored the narrative enigmas of the film essay. Still photography—cinema's ghostly parent—was eclipsed by the medium of film, but also set free. The rise of the moving image also obliged photography to make a virtue of its own stillness. Perhaps the essay film envied the simplicity, lightness, and precision of photography, and, as Chris Marker showed us in La Jetée (1962), it would be possible to create a compelling science-fiction film composed almost entirely of black-and-white photographs.

But what is a film essay today, in our contemporary moment of fleeting images? Is it a portrait, a conversation, a political statement, a question? To ponder this we look at frames made by four generations of moving-image makers—born in years ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s—this constellation of artists aim to challenge the traditional notion of the essay film in spaces ranging from Beirut to Cairo, Namibia to Detroit. 


Heather M. O'Brien
Assistant Professor, Studio Arts 
Department of Fine Arts and Art History
Center for Arts and Humanities Fellow
The American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Noor Tannir .  Power Cut  (film still), 4 min, 2017.

Noor Tannir. Power Cut (film still), 4 min, 2017.