THE ESSAY FILM: A MANIFESTO by MARK COUSINS
In the last two years I have made three essay films – What is This Film Called Love?, A Story of Children and Film, and Here be Dragons. In the next year, I will make two more – I am Belfast and Stockholm My Love.
In making these, and watching many more – by Anand Patwardhan and Agnes Varda, for example – and after reading Philip Lopate’s book on the essay, I started to make a mental list of the elements of, and the principles behind, essay films. This list is a kind of manifesto.
1. A fiction film is a bubble. An essay film bursts it.
2. An essay film takes an idea for a walk.
3. Essay films are visual thinking.
4. Essay films reverse film production: the images come first, the script, last.
5. Filming an essay is gathering, like a carpenter gathers wood.
6. A fiction film is a car, an essay film is a bike; it can nip up an alleyway, you can feel the wind in its hair.
7. A road movie has outer movement, an essay film has inner movement.
8. An essay film is the opposite of fly on the wall.
9. An essay film can go anywhere, and should.
10. Two essay films should be made every year. Why? Because, after F for Fake, Orson Welles said this to Henry 11. Jaglom during lunch at Ma Maison: “I could have made an essay film – two of ‘em a year, you see. On different subjects. Various variations of that form.”
11. Commentary is to the essay film, what dance is to the musical.
12. All essay films would be improved by a clip of Dietrich (see Marcel Ophuls).
13. An essay film cannot create the atmosphere of Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; A fiction film cannot explain that atmosphere.
14. Even Hollywood makes essay
films – look at DW Griffith’s Intolerance.
15. Essay films are what Astruc dreamt of.
16. Digital had made Astruc’s dream come true.
Filmmaker Mark Cousins goes to Albania for five days, and films what he sees. He discovers that the movie prints in the country's film archive are decaying. In investigating this, Cousins begins to encounter bigger questions about the history and memory of a place. Perhaps a country whose 20th Century, dominated by its authoritarian ruler Enver Hoxha, was so traumatic, should allow its film heritage to fade away? Perhaps a national forgetting should be welcomed? Influenced by the films of Chris Marker, Cousins' film broadens to consider the architecture of dictators and the great icon paintings of Onufri. In the past, when cartographers knew little about a country, they wrote on it Here be Dragons. Albania was, for decades, one of the least well know countries in the world. Cousins' road movie meditation takes the advice of Goethe: "If you would understand the poet, you must go to the poet's land."
Mark Cousins is one of World Cinema’s rare directors who integrates talents as a writer, broadcaster and critic into highly individualistic ‘essay’ films which have given him international status. He followed his 15 hour seminal history of the movies, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, with A Story of Children and Film officially selected at Cannes 2013.