In Stilleben, Harun Farocki’s 1995 essay film (or film essay), we see a comparison between still-life paintings from the 17th-century and current commercial advertisements. The film aims to explore how the arrangement of products in a setting, ready to be photographed, relates to the meticulous object studies seen in baroque paintings.
We can approach the audiovisual essay in several ways. I propose, first, to look at it in terms of a still-life painting: It intends to represent ordinary objects in an accurate, yet illusionistic way. In a trompe l’oeil effect, we observe the objects as if they were real, available to our touch. The audiovisual essay is the trompe l’oeil of cinema. It’s film as a mirroring, an interaction, a thought process, which, regardless of its narrative intentions, always ends up, inevitably, consciously, reflecting the medium in which it operates. It is like this text, through which, I now admit, I am trying to gather my thoughts.
Others may disagree with my take. For Phillip Lopate, the essay film should be a vehicle for an always truthful, personal point of view; for others, the term itself is questionable. Hans Richter, who in 1940 was the first to write on the subject, baptized the essay film as a “new type of documentary.”
Alternatively, what’s certain is that the video essay became popular on the internet, spreading through YouTube and Vimeo. What separates it from the essay film is this digital context (even though the frontiers may get blurry). The video essay became available to almost everyone with a computer by getting rid of the self-importance and high expense that are inevitable in the film format. One just needs video editing software. Therein lies its relevance and significance.
We’ve come a long way since experiments like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Farocki’s Stilleben. Playing in the same poetic space between documentary and fiction (which allows for a personal perspective that is at the core of these audiovisual creations) the inclusion of found footage and screen recordings (normalized by the spread of the internet) turned the video essay into a representation of online life. Kevin B. Lee came up with the term “desktop documentary,” describing a method through which video essay reaches its radical possibilities: The narrative is told only through the recording of a computer screen, making the screen “both a lens and a canvas.”
This approach enacts an immersive, dissociative, but intimate effect. As Chloé Galibert-Laîné puts it: “It feels like your device is suddenly possessed by someone else’s ghost.” What this means becomes clear when we watch big budget films using a similar, approach to convey dread and suspense — for example, Searching by Aneesh Chaganty or Unfriended by Levan Gabriadze. In these films, it is apparent that the utopic aspect of the digital can always turn nightmarish, locking us inside it. The desktop documentary is also aware of this dissonance. (Actually, everything that surrounds it deals with consciousness: a self-consciousness, a semiotic consciousness.) Examples of that are Jessica McGoff’s My Mulholland, a film told as a diary in which a narrator details her traumatic experience first watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, associating it with the jump scares that were common in the early years of Web 2.0, and Forensickness by Chloe Galibert-Laîné, through which I realized the potential of this medium.
Laîné’s film starts grainy as if it had been shot on 16mm film. The narration begins in an intimate voice that almost whispers. There’s a sense of time, a warmness that gets close to a Vardian cinécriture. But the film we’re looking at is, in fact, a different one, Watching the Detectives by Chris Kennedy, which Laîné introduces in her own, deconstructing it. Forensickness is a triple look: an investigation of Watching the Detectives which, in turn, is an examination of the Reddit users who were trying to identify the culprits in the Boston Marathon attacks by looking at some photos of the event. We see montages of films, camera recordings, and Laîné’s desktop as the narrative unfolds in a free association of thoughts. It involves us naturally as if we were doing our own research, helping to reflect on the way online investigations mirror our personality and making visible not only this always mysterious relationship with the internet but simultaneously, by unfolding in real time, the making process itself.
When I saw Forensickness, at a peak of the pandemic, I fell into its depiction of paranoia, placing myself in this screen uncertain about the future. Empathy is what keeps us engaged in the best video essays — as it does in life itself. That’s why I think the video essay isn’t just another foray into avant-garde cinema, or merely a reflection on the possibilities of images. It relates to the core of our social interactions, pulling us into them as a magician pulls us into an illusion.
There’s also an activist quality to them, one that may go from exposing racial struggles, as John Akomfrah pioneered or the Black Lives Matter Movement demonstrates on its platform, to producing free and accessible educational content, as Every Frame a Painting or Nerdwriter1 present on their YouTube channels. Their accessibility enables the impulse of making and, in the process, presents us with a new way of interacting with images, a possibility of the democratization of filmmaking that, even with today’s digital media tools, hasn’t yet arrived. Could the laptop be the new, expanded movie theater?
In one of his last films, F For Fake, Orson Welles made a fake documentary which he described as an “essay film.” “This is a movie about trickery,” he reveals, without admitting, however, that he’s part of the whole trick. Close to the end, he unmasks his lie, ruthlessly confessing, “What we professional liars hope to serve is the truth. I’m afraid the fancy word for it is art.” I just hope the lies continue.