Example essay

Why We Should Care About Video Essay

In stillebenHarun Farocki’s 1995 essay film (or film essay), we see a comparison between seventeenth-century still lifes and ongoing commercial advertisements. The film aims to explore how the arrangement of products in a set, ready to be photographed, relates to the meticulous object studies seen in Baroque paintings.

Audiovisual testing can be approached in several ways. I suggest, first of all, to consider it from the angle of a still life: it intends to represent ordinary objects in a precise, but illusionistic way. In one optical illusion indeed, we observe objects as if they were real, available to our touch. The audiovisual test is the optical illusion the cinema. It is film as mirroring, as interaction, as thought process, which, whatever its narrative intentions, always, inevitably, consciously ends up reflecting the medium in which it operates. It’s like this text, through which, I confess now, I try to collect my thoughts.

Others may disagree with my view. For Philippe Lopate, the test film must convey a personal point of view that is always truthful; for others, the term itself is debatable. Hans Richter, who in 1940 was the first to write on the subject, baptized the film-essay “a new type of documentary.”

An excerpt from the movie Still lifea release from Facets Video, directed by Harun Farocki

Alternatively, what is certain is that the video test became popular on the internet, spreading via YouTube and Vimeo. What separates it from the film essay is this digital context (even if the borders can blur). Video essay has become accessible to almost anyone with a computer by getting rid of the smugness and high expense that is inevitable in the film format. All you need is video editing software. This is its relevance and its significance.

What a long way since experiences like that of Dziga Vertov Man with a movie camera or at Farocki stilleben. Playing in the same poetic space between documentary and fiction (which allows a personal look which is at the heart of these audiovisual creations), the insertion of found footage and screen recordings (normalized by the diffusion of the Internet) has turned the video essay into a representation of online life. Kevin B. Lee came up with the term “desktop documentary,“describing a method by which the video essay achieves 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 produces an immersive, dissociative, yet intimate effect. As Chloé Galibert-Laîné says it“Looks 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, Research by Aneesh Chaganty or friendless by Levan Gabriadze. In these films, it emerges that the utopian aspect of digital technology can always turn into a nightmare, lock us in. The office documentary is also aware of this dissonance. (In fact, everything around it deals with consciousness: self-consciousness, semiotic consciousness.) My Mulhollanda film told like a diary in which a female narrator details her traumatic experience by first watching David Lynch Mulholland Driveby associating it with the jump alerts that were common in the early years of Web 2.0, and Forensic medecine by Chloé Galibert-Laîné, through which I realized the potential of this medium.

Laîné’s film begins grainy as if it had been shot on 16mm. The narration begins with an intimate voice that almost whispers. There is a sense of time, a warmth that approaches a Vardian cinwriting. But the film we are watching is, in fact, another, Watch Detectives by Chris Kennedy, which Laîné introduces into his own, by deconstructing it. Forensic medecine is a triple look: an investigation of Watch Detectives which, in turn, is a review of Reddit users who were trying to identify the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings by looking at some photos from the event. We see film edits, camera recordings and Laîné’s desk as the narrative unfolds in a free association of thoughts. It naturally involves us as if we were doing our own research, helping to reflect on how online surveys reflect our personality and making visible not only this still mysterious relationship with the Internet but simultaneously, by unfolding in real time, the process of manufacture itself.

When I saw Forensic medecine, at the height of the pandemic, I fell into his portrayal of paranoia, placing myself in this screen uncertain about the future. Empathy is what keeps us engaged in the best video essays – as it is in life itself. This is why I think that the video essay is not just another foray into avant-garde cinema, or simply a reflection on the possibilities of the image. It relates to the core of our social interactions, dragging us there like a magician drags us into an illusion.

There is also an activist quality to them, which can range from exposing racial struggles, as John Akomfrah pioneered or the Black Lives Matter Movement demonstrates on its platform, to producing free educational content and available, like Each frame a painting Where Nerdwriter1 present on their YouTube channels. Their accessibility enables the impulse to do and, in doing so, presents us with a new way of interacting with images, a possibility for the democratization of cinema which, even with today’s digital media tools, is not yet arrival. Could the laptop be the new expanded movie theater?

In one of his last films, F for falseOrson Welles made a mockumentary which he described as a “test movie”. “It’s a film about trickery,” he reveals, though he doesn’t admit that he’s part of the trickery. Near the end, he exposes 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.


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