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Thought in Action: The Art of the Essay Film

Sitting somewhere between documentary and fiction, the ‘essay film’ signals and probes, like no other form of cinema, the filmmaker’s personal relationship to the images on screen. Grappling with urgent political and philosophical issues of the day, the essay film is cinema at its most engaged and liberated.

'The slippery term ‘essay film’ was first coined by the filmmaker Hans Richter in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until 1958 that one essay film in particular, Chris Marker’s Letter to Siberia (not available for this season), was designated and theorised as such by the French critic André Bazin. As the form developed and exploded through the political ferment of the 1960s and onwards [...] the question of what constituted an essay film became more pressing.

At first glance, it could be mistaken for a species of documentary; a personal cinema of ideas that foregrounds the director’s subjectivity through first-person narration, pursuing a certain argument or set of associations. That’s a workable definition, but to what extent is that speaking ‘I’ a performance, and therefore a distancing, fictionalising device not to be taken at face value? And how to account for those films that eschew voiceover, but still manage to convey a distinctively personal take on the world, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera? [...]'

Words by Kieron Corless.

Explore the answer to these questions for yourself during this month-long season at the BFI, a Sight & Sound Deep Focus. 

For more information, and to book tickets, click here.