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  • Forgotten Space - l'Océan de l'Oubli

    Essay film

    by Noel Burch

    Forty years ago I may have been the first to launch the concept of the essay film. I was still intellectually juvenile and quite “apolitical” and the notion was hazy in my mind. I set the essay film against “documentary” in the classical sense, that supposedly objective rendering of reality, my bad objects were Flaherty, Grierson and the GPO. An essay film was about getting across ideas. And it was also about inventing complex forms, structured ambiguities, about getting away from a certain linearity, common I felt to standard documentary and “Hollywood” alike. It’s worth noting that most of the models I chose were much further to the left than I was : Franju’s Hotel des Invalides, Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, Godard’s middle period, Dziga Vertov and also certain experiments in French public television… Essential to the notion was the admixture of materials and stylistic approaches, fictional footage mingling, perhaps “invisibly”, with cinema-vérité, library shots, hidden camera-work, etc. Such discontinuities were meant to create, somehow or other, the famous “distanciation” theorized and practiced by Brecht. At least that is what I began claiming after I was radicalized in ’68. However, mainly I see it today as a modernist stance: involvement in a film (or a play or a novel) was in itself a bad object, a “Hollywoodian” relationship between screen and spectator. I was rationalizing what was in fact a pure aesthetic preference based on the leftist idea that the “transparency” of mass cultural artefacts “alienated” the mass audience…

    The essay film caught on during the seventies and early eighties. In France, I was first able to put it into practice with André S. Labarthe, Janine Bazin and Jean-André Fieschi for Cinéastes de notre temps (1966-71) and in the mid-eighties again with a social history of early cinema in six episodes for FR3 and Channel 4. But it was mostly in England that the essay film developed, during those early, heady years of Channel 4, and of audacious funding programs at the Arts Council and the BFI Production Board. I was personally able to make three such hour-long films there, but so did many others, including several of my former students at the Royal College of Arts (Ed Bennett, Anna Ambrose, Phil Mulloy…). And I remember being naively peeved when The Impersonation, which I co-directed with Christopher Mason for the Arts Council, won a prize at the Melbourne festival for “best experimental film.” Why “experimental” I wanted to know? For me, this was the way a “documentary” should be…

    Today this kind of film is out of fashion, ratings are king, audiences are meant to be too dumb to follow anything the least bit complex…

    And so The Forgotten Space, which has been an attempt to carry on with that unfinished business, was made against the grain. When it occurred to Allan and I to make a film drawn from “Dismal science” the main essay in his Fish Story, of which I had become enamoured while translating it into French, we both had in mind something along those lines, mingling little fictions, and even surrealistic “collages”, with cinema-vérité reportages, library shots, etc. This proved a difficult agenda for all sorts of practical reasons and because of various artistic and ideological frictions within a complex co-production structure.

    I think what principally remains here of the basic concept of the essay film is a rather rambling structure, very largely discontinuous and often digressive. It is certainly a film which should keep spectators on their toes but is, hopefully, nowhere opaque. Subject-matter such as this, the evils of productivist, “globalized” capitalism, even if looked at solely in terms of maritime shipping and adjacent activities, is so vast that it can only be sampled… in such a way, we hope, as to suggest the extent of the horror… and the logic of the problematic mutations under way… It is a film which has to be continued by other means…

    France, October 2010