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In a world bedazzled by intractable images, do we need the essay film now more than ever? As S&S explores its art in our latest Deep Focus primer and BFI Southbank season, Kevin B. Lee weighs up this distinctively self-aware, searching form of cinema through both video and text.

Deep focus: The essay film | Sight & Sound | BFI

The other key inheritance the essay film received from the classical montage tradition, perhaps inevitably, was a progressive spirit, however variously defined. While Leni Riefenstahl’s (1935) and (1938) amply and chillingly demonstrated that montage, like any instrumental apparatus, has no inherent ideological nature, hers were more the exceptions that proved the rule. (Though why, apart from ideological repulsiveness, should Riefenstahl’s plentifully fabricated ‘documentaries’ not be considered as essay films in their own right?)

Essay film Sauntered in pupal and unconditional love

Renov, Michael, “History and/as Autobiography: The Essayistic in Film and Video,” Frame/Work 2/3 (1989):6–13

In his own way, Farocki’s work fulfils another wish for the essay film expressed by Tracy that I share, to see the image “as part of a matrix of meaning that extends beyond the screen.” This takes me back to this article’s starting point in the contemporary morass of online clip compilations and fan tributes that pass as essays, and what alternative mode of media could place us in a more critically aware position with regard to how media functions in our lives, where it comes from, what larger forces are behind its dissemination and our consumption of them.