Filmmakers such as Thomas Andersen, Agnès Varda and the Black Audio Film Collective have contributed to the essay film’s layered history of engagagement with archival documents and found footage. London’s Essay Film Festival serves as a showcase for this critically evaluative form since 2015, with this year’s selection demonstrating the multi-faceted ways remnants from history can be activated through the lens of the personal and the political.
John Gianvito’s Her Socialist Smile (2020) is a distinctive re-imagining of the biopic form, with early twentieth-century activist Helen Keller as its subject. Framing the breadth of her political activities as intrinsic to her, the film expands on a reductive story that heavy-handedly attributes her successes in life to disability rights activism alone. Owing to a lack of access to visual archives of Keller, Gianvito heavily mobilises related texts and diary entries, assembling a comprehensive scrapbook of her oeuvre.
Often appearing as title cards and/or read aloud by poet Carolyn Forché, the written word is literally mapped on to the screen in a manner evocative of Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘literary montage’. Through this approach, Gianvito illustrates how intersectional Keller’s pursuits were, and the juxtaposition of her words with tranquil footage of the wider world ultimately amplifies how relevant her concerns still are.
Other types of archival media exist in an oversaturated network, and subversive approaches can activate their latent machinations. This is particularly true of home movies and Nuria Giménez confronts their uncanny coalescence of Western cultural conventions in My Mexican Bretzel(2020). Antagonising the often patriarchally defined images of family lives from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Giménez fuses a couple’s home movies with a fabricated set of diary entries from Vivian Barrett, the unsure wife of a promising pharmaceutical businessman.
What’s real, adapted or entirely fictional isn’t made clear until the final moments, and the facade pulled over the viewer’s eyes reflects the collective ideals of Western lived-experience so accurately that it could be considered truthful on a technicality. The film’s sparse sound design, selective use of foley and delivery of Vivian’s diary entries through voiceless subtitles adds a further layer of unease. In the opening sequence Giménez depicts a plane crush that ruptures the body of the film, jettisoning scratched film leaders at the viewer; a jarring reminder of how found footage films can use sound for affect.
Found footage is also a central aspect of the Asian Film Archive’s recent commissions of short-form essay films under the ‘Monographs 2020’ banner. The programme explores how archival images can evoke distinct cultural memories, and how time-based media can interface with political and spiritual concepts in individual countries.
In Raya Martin’s SPIRIT FILM (2020), archival film related to Japanese fascism and the country’s occupation of the Philippines, is passed through a colouring AI, adding a layer of slightly displaced and roughly applied hues, amplifying the complex history lesson Martin weaves throughout. Meanwhile, Riar Rizaldi’s Ghosts Like Us (2020) explores the evolution of horror films in Indonesia—of how the end of the authoritarian regime in 1998 caused the genre to shift from disseminating political subjugation to enabling lower income filmmakers to explore, ‘the cinematic potential for excursion to the unseen world.’
Several of the Monographs works use motion pictures themselves as found footage—slowing down, replaying, zooming into and making collages from video files wearing the artefacts of their journeys through slow internet connections or older home entertainment formats. This includes Truong Minh Qúy’s Death of a Soldier (2020), a comparison of soldiers’ deaths in Vietnamese propaganda films that brings to light connected themes and shared formal conventions, and Maryam Tafakory’s diasporic reading of how Iranian dramas frequently place an otherwise innocuous bag as the interlocutor of prohibited touch in Irani Bag (2020). At a time where global flight paths are limited, a notion arises from viewing the Monographs programme of how heightened the experience of watching films from home countries can be for persons living elsewhere.
The essay film is often a difficult to categorise style of filmmaking, converging stylistic modes, deconstructing and reconstructing conventions. That’s exactly why it becomes so compelling when archival documents are brought into its shapeshifting manner of inquiry, as these examples demonstrate. Archive is just one of the many things essay filmmakers can employ, which is what makes a festival devoted to the form so rewarding.
Andrew Northrop is a film journalist based in London. His writing and interviews have appeared in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, Hyperallergic, BOMB Magazine and more.
The Essay Film Festival’s 2021 edition runs 25 March to 3 April, held online on their own streaming platform.