From 2011 until 2015, I taught a course entitled “Documentary Production” at a small liberal arts college north of Chicago. Rather than basing the class entirely on production techniques, I included aspects of analysis and theory, and used several examples of documentary films to illustrate the many stylistic and thematic approaches they encompassed. The readings came entirely from Bill Nichols’s Introduction to Documentary which I felt was a straightforward, yet comprehensive look at the histories, strategies, criticisms and ethics of documentary filmmaking.1 Nichols’s classification of documentaries proved to be particularly useful, and students were asked to identify certain films as expository, poetic, observational, participatory, reflexive or performative. For example, the majority of the students believed that Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi was an example of the poetic mode, since its associational images and complete lack of dialogue, text, or narration evoke rather than dictate major environmental themes. The students agreed that the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens (1976) and, to an extent, Steve James’s Hoop Dreams (1994) were observational, since the filmmakers took a largely unobtrusive approach to filming their subjects. However, despite the stylistic and thematic differences of many of the films shown in class, I taught my students that all documentary films have the same objectives: to educate, inform and persuade.

When it came time for the students to create their own documentaries, one of my policies was for them to “throw objectivity out the window”. To quote John Grierson, documentaries are the “creative treatment of actuality.” Capturing the truth, whatever it may be, is quite nearly impossible if not utterly futile. Often, filmmakers deliberately manipulate their footage in order to achieve educational, informative and persuasive objectives. To illustrate, I screened Robert Flaherty’s 1922 film Nanook of the North and always marveled at the students’ reactions when, after the screening, I informed them that the film’s depiction of traditional Inuit life was entirely a reenactment. While many students were shocked and disappointed when they learned this, others accepted Flaherty’s defence of the film as true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Inuit’s vanishing way of life. Another example that I screened was a clip from controversial filmmaker Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) which demonstrated how Moore shrewdly used editing to villainise then-NRA president Charlton Heston. Though a majority of the class agreed with Moore’s anti-gun violence agenda, many were infuriated about being “lied to” and “misled” by the editing tactics. Naturally these examples also raise questions about the role of ethics in documentary filmmaking, but even films that are not deliberately manipulative are still “the product of individuals, [and] will always display bias and be in some manner didactic.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 193.)

To further my point on the elusive nature of objectivity, I screened Alain Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1956), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008.) Yet at this point I began to wonder if I was still teaching documentary or if I had ventured into some other territory. I was aware that Koyaanisqatsi had also been classified as an experimental film by notable scholars such as David Bordwell. On the other hand, Nuit et brouillard is labeled a documentary film but poses more questions than answers, since it is “unable to adequately document the reality it seeks.” (Alter/Corrigan p. 210.) Resnais’s short film interweaves black and white archival footage with colour film of Auschwitz and other camps. The colour sequences were shot in 1955, when the camps had already been deserted for ten years.  Nuit et brouillard scrutinises the brutality of the Holocaust while contemplating the social, political and ethical responsibilities of the Nazis. Yet it also questions the more abstract role of knowledge and memory, both individual and communal, within the context of such horrific circumstances. The students did not challenge Night and Fog’s classification as a documentary, but they wondered if Waltz with Bashir and especially Sans Soleil had entirely different objectives since they seemed to do more than present factual information. The students also noted that these films seemed to merge with other genres, and wondered if there was a different classification for them aside from poetic, observational, participatory, et al.  Although it is animated, Waltz with Bashir is classified as a documentary since it is based on Folman’s own experiences during the 1982 Lebanon War. Also, as Roger Ebert notes, animation is “the best way to reconstruct memories, fantasies, hallucinations, possibilities, past and present.”2 However, it is not solely a document of Folman’s experiences or of the war itself. It is also a subjective meditation on the nature of human perception. As Folman attempts to reconstruct past events through the memories of his fellow soldiers, Waltz with Bashir investigates the very nature of truth itself. These films definitely challenged the idea of documentary as a strict genre, but the students noticed that they each had interesting similarities. Aside from educating, informing and persuading, they also used non-fiction sounds and images to visualise abstract concepts and ideas.

essay films

Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983)

Sans Soleil has been described as “a meditation on place […] where spatial availability confuses the sense of time and memory.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 117.) Some of my students felt that Marker’s film, which is composed of images from Japan and elsewhere, was more like a “filmed travelogue”. Others described it as a “film journal” since Marker used images and narration to describe certain experiences, thoughts and memories. Yet my students’ understanding of Sans Soleil was problematised when they discovered that the narration was delivered by “a fictional, nameless woman […] reading aloud from, or else paraphrasing, letters sent to her by a fictional, globe-trotting cameraman.”3 Upon learning this, several students wondered if Sans Soleil was actually a narrative and not a documentary at all. I briefly explained that, since it was also an attempt to visualise abstract concepts, Sans Soleil was known as an essay film. Yet this only complicated things further!  The students wondered if other films we saw in the class were essayistic as well. Was Koyaanisqatsi an essay on humanity’s impact on the world? Was Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 2006) an essay on the place of religion in society and politics?  Where was the line between documentary and the essay film? Between essay and narrative? Or was the essay just another type of documentary?  Rather than immerse myself in the difficulties of describing the essay film, I quickly changed the topic to the students’ own projects, and encouraged them to shape their documentaries through related processes of investigation and exploration.

If I had been able to read “Essays on the Essay Film” by Nora M. Alter & Timothy Corrigan and “The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia” by Elizabeth A. Papazian & Caroline Eades before teaching this class, I still may not have been able to provide definitive answers to my students’ questions. But this is not to say that either of these books are vague and inconclusive! Each one is an insightful collection of articles that explores the complexities of the essay film. In her essay “The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments” featured in Alter and Corrigan’s “Essays on the Essay Film” Laura Rascaroli wisely notes that “we must resist the temptation to overtheorise the form or, even worse, to crystallise it into a genre…” since the essay film is a “matrix of all generic possibilities.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 190) Fabienne Costa goes so far as saying that “The ‘cinematographic essay’ is neither a category of films nor a genre. It is more a type of image, which achieves essay quality.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 190) It is true that filmmakers, critics, and scholars (myself included) have attempted to understand the essay film better by grouping it with genres that bear many similarities, such as documentary and experimental cinema. Yet despite these similarities, the authors suggest that the essay film needs to be differentiated from both documentary and avant-garde practices of filmmaking. Both “Essays on the Essay Film” and “The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia” illustrate that this mutable form should not be understood as a specific genre, but rather recognised for its profoundly reflective and reflexive capabilities. The essay film can even defy established formulas. As stated by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin in his essay “Proposal for a Tussle” the essay film “can navigate from documentary to fiction and back, creating other polarities in the process between which it can operate.” (Alter/Corrigan, p. 270.)

Nora M. Alter and Timothy Corrigan’s “Essays on the Essay Film” consists of writings by distinguished scholars such as Andre Bazin, Theodore Adorno, Hans Richter and Laura Mulvey, but also includes more recent work by Thomas Elsaesser, Laura Rascaroli and others. Although each carefully selected text spans different time periods and cultural backgrounds, Alter and Corrigan weave together a comprehensive, yet pliable description of the cinematic essay.

“Essays on the Essay Film” begins by including articles that investigate the form and function of the written essay. This first chapter, appropriately titled “Foundations” provides a solid groundwork for many of the concepts discussed in the following chapters. Although the written essay is obviously different from the work created by filmmakers such as Chris Marker and Trinh T. Minh-ha, Alter and Corrigan note that these texts “have been influential to both critics and practitioners of the contemporary film essay.” (p. 7) The articles in this chapter range from Georg Lukacs’s 1910 “On the Nature and Form of the Essay” to “Preface to the Collected Essays of Aldous Huxley” which was published in 1960. Over a span of fifty years, the authors illustrate how the very concept of the essay was affected by changing practices of art, history, philosophy, culture, economics, politics, as well as through modernist and postmodernist lenses. However, these articles are still surprisingly relevant for contemporary scholars and practitioners. For example, in an excerpt from The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil writes that, “A man who wants the truth becomes a scholar; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity may become a writer; but what should a man do who wants something in between?” (p. 45.) Naturally, this reminded me of my class’s discussion on Sans Soleil and Waltz with Bashir. It concisely encapsulates the difficulties that arise when the essay film crosses boundaries of fiction and non-fiction. However, in his 1948 essay “On the Essay and its Prose”, Max Bense believes that the essay lies within the realm of experimentation, since “there is a strange border area that develops between poetry and prose, between the aesthetic stage of creation and the ethical stage of persuasion.”  (p. 52.)  Bense also notes that the word “essay” itself means “to attempt” or to “experiment” and believes that the essay firmly belongs in the realm of experimental and avant-garde. This is appropriate enough, given that writers, and more recently filmmakers and video artists have pushed the boundaries of their mediums in order to explore their deepest thoughts and emotions.

Alter and Corrigan follow this chapter with “The Essay Film Through History” which details the evolution of the essay film. Writing in 1940, Hans Richter considers the essay film a new type of documentary and praises its abilities to break beyond the purportedly objective goals of documentaries in an attempt to “visualize thoughts on screen.” (p. 91) Eighteen years later, Andre Bazin celebrates Chris Marker’s thought-provoking voice-over narration as well as his method of “not restricting himself to using documentary images filmed on the spot, but [using] any and all filmic material that might help his case.” (p. 104) Bazin even compares Marker’s style to the work of animator Norman McLaren, supporting the idea of the essay film’s use of unfettered creativity. By the time the reader gets to the third chapter, “Contemporary Positions”, he or she is well aware of the capricious and malleable nature of the essay film. As Corrigan remarks:

As it develops in and out of those documentary and avant-garde traditions, the history of the essay film underlines a central critical point: that the essayistic should not necessarily be seen simply as an alternative to either of these practices (or to narrative cinema); rather it rhymes with and retimes them as counterpoints within and to them. Situated between the categories of realism and formal experimentation and geared to the possibilities of “public expression,” the essay film suggests an appropriation of certain avant-garde and documentary practices in a way different from the early historical practices of both, just as it tends to invert and restructure the relations between the essayistic and narrative to subsume narrative within that public expression. The essayistic play between fact and fiction, between the documentary and the experimental, or between non-narrative and narrative becomes a place where the essay film inhabits other forms and practices. (p. 198)

Alter and Corrigan’s volume implies that the essay can inhabit many forms, styles or genres. More importantly is the idea that it should be recognised for its intentions and capabilities. Whatever form it takes, the essay is an attempt to seek, explore, understand, visualise and question, without necessarily providing clearly defined answers. The essay film also places considerable value on the intellect and opinion of the viewer, since it is an invitation to reflect on the thoughts, experiences, emotions and perceptions that are being conveyed. “Essays on the Essay Film” sensibly concludes with the chapter entitled “Filmmakers on the Essayistic”. Notable filmmakers, such as Lynn Sachs and Ross McElwee provide valuable insight into their own practices. The featured filmmakers, documentarians and video artists in this chapter do not focus specifically on what form their work takes, but what they are trying to achieve. For instance, in her article “On Writing the Film Essay,” Lynn Sachs proclaims that “My job is not to educate but rather to spark a curiosity in my viewer that moves from the inside out.” (p. 287.) Admittedly, Sachs’s statement contradicts the idea that documentary films seek to educate, inform and persuade, which I taught in my own classes. Yet Sachs’s insights, as well as those of the many other filmmakers in “Essays on the Essay Film” demonstrate how the camera is as versatile as the pen when communicating thoughts, emotions and ideas.

essay films

Tree of Life (Malick, 2011)

Elizabeth A. Papazian and Caroline Eades have also compiled several surprising, challenging and thoroughly captivating articles that exemplify the many forms that the essay film can take. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia includes articles by several prominent scholars that explore the essay film’s place throughout history as well as within various cultural settings. Like Alter and Corrigan, they also present a convincing argument that the essay film is distinct from both documentary, avant-garde and narrative filmmaking, since it is “characterized by a loose, fragmentary, playful, even ironic approach […] and raises new questions about the construction of the subject, the relationship of the subject to the world and the aesthetic possibilities of cinema.” (Papazian/Eades, p. 1) Papazian and Eades explore how essayistic tendencies can manifest in narrative, documentary, avant-garde, and even video art through careful analyses of specific films and videos. The book opens with Timothy Corrigan’s “Essayism and Contemporary Film Narrative” which explores how the essayistic can inhabit narrative film, specifically through Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, both released in 2011. Corrigan observes that The Tree of Life “continually seems to resist its own narrative logic” (p. 18) by presenting a highly fragmented and non-linear plot.  Instead of placing it into the hybrid realm of experimental-narrative, however, Corrigan argues that:

Rather than locate a linear connection between past, present and future, the narrative flashbacks in The Tree of Life become a search for genesis – or more accurately many geneses – which might be better described as disruptive recollections that never adequately collect and circulate, as fractured and drifting images and moments producing not evolutionary lines, but the spreading reflective branches of essayism. (p. 19-20.)

The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia continues with essays by other acclaimed, yet indefinable filmmakers such as Jean Luc-Godard and Claire Denis. Essays by Rick Warner and Martine Beugnet explore how these filmmakers defy closure and continuity, even while appearing to work within established forms and genres. Ann Eaken Moss explores the essayistic approach that Chantal Akerman imbues within her experimental “home movies.”  News from Home (1977) is a meditation on Akerman’s own sense of dislocation from her home in Belgium while she adapts to life in New York City. In “Inside/Outside: Nicolasito Guillen Landrian’s Subversive Strategy in Coffea Arabiga” Ernesto Livon-Grosman investigates Landrian’s means of furtively including his own political agenda within a government-sanctioned documentary. What was meant to be a propagandistic documentary about the benefits of Cuban coffee plantations becomes an essayistic critique on the power structure of Fidel Castro’s government. (Livon-Grosman.) Papazian and Eades conclude their volume with an afterward by Laura Rascaroli, affirming that “it is with the potentiality of all essay films to question and challenge their own form”. (p. 300) The essay film may be distinct from narrative, documentary and the avant-garde, but it itself has no discernable style or formula. The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia clearly illustrates how the essay film, although bordering on established genres “must create the conditions of its own form.” (pp. 301-302.) Every filmmaker’s unique thoughts, experiences, meditations, questions and perceptions cannot neatly fit into a strict set of generic guidelines. However, this does not make the essay film more difficult to understand, but further implies that it is a unique practice rather than a specific form.

essay films

News from Home (Akerman, 1977)

Even with the insight provided by these two volumes, I do not regret introducing the essay film to my documentary students, despite their questions and confusion. As illustrated throughout Essays on the Essay Film and The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia it has typically been an esoteric and transgressive form, and perhaps including it with better known genres such as documentary and experimental films could be an effective way of introducing it to beginning filmmakers and scholars. Then again, perhaps it should be taught as a form separate from documentary, narrative and the avant-garde. I do wish that I was able to speak more about it at length during that particular instance, since the essay film deserves a considerable amount of thought and attention. Whether or not there is a correct pedagogical approach to teaching the essay film, both of these volumes are tremendously illuminating, but also open the door to further discussion about this compelling form of cinema.

Nora M. Alter and Timothy Corrigan, Essays on the Essay Film (Film and Culture Series) (New York:. Columbia University Press, 2017).

Caroline Eades and Elizabeth A. Papazian, The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia (Nonfictions) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).



  1. Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010).
  2. Roger Ebert, “Waltz with Bashir”, rogerebert.com, January 21, 2009, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/waltz-with-bashir-2009
  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Personal Effects: The Guarded Intimacy of Sans Soleil”, The Criterion Collection, June 25, 2017, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/484-personal-effects-the-guarded-intimacy-of-sans-soleil

About The Author

Katherine Balsley graduated with a BFA in Film from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2003, and earned an MFA in Mass Communication and Media Arts from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in 2009. Her films and videos have been exhibited across the United States and abroad, including the Athens International Film and Video Festival, the Black Maria Film Festival, the Reel Earth Environmental Film Festival in New Zealand and the Jecheon International Film and Music Festival in South Korea. Currently, she is an assistant professor of film at Georgia Gwinnett College near Atlanta.

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