There are fiction films and there are non-fiction films and then there is the fascinating genre of the essay film in which the boundaries between the two are smudged, sometimes collapsed and then regrafted to offer new ways of thinking not only about the fallibility of the distinctions between fact and fiction but also the big philosophical questions we all face everywhere and every day.
Here are three essay films that demonstrate the power of the genre to do more than straightforward fiction or documentary films through the smart use of elements from both.
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Chris Marker almost single-handedly invented the essay film form with his 1958 Letter from Siberia and perfected it with this 1983 rumination on memory that wanders through history and between the different regions of Japan and Guinea-Bissau.
Using a distinctive combination of stock footage, archival footage, clips from TV shows and documentary footage shot by Marker, the film is constructed as a series of letters read by a nameless female French narrator and sent to her by a fictitious cameraman.
A unique and endlessly rewatchable assemblage of images that slowly work together to offer a provocative and profound meditation on everything from the peculiarities of life in Japan to the anti-colonial revolutionary thought and life of Amilcar Cabral, it’s a supreme example of the essay film’s ability to straddle the divisions between categories — fiction and non-fiction; education and inspiration; and travelogue and philosophical treatise.
Rated by many critics as one of the greatest non-fiction films ever made, it still surprises and delights, and throws up juxtapositions that create new meaning from seemingly unrelated images and ideas.
Some of its reflections on technology and the post-independence future of Africa may have aged but overall it still stands as a keenly intelligent and little bettered personal meditation on the wonders of travel and the passions that it inspires in the heart and mind to reflect on the beautiful strangeness of humanity.
Marker remained one of cinema’s most singular creators — elusive, interview and camera shy, and seldom seen — but always felt in the distinctive film essays he quietly and steadily produced over half a century until his death in 2012.
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