Reporting from the Essay film Festival 2016

This post was contributed by Jerry Whyte, who attended a selection of events at this year’s Essay film Festival.

Essay Film FestivalBirkbeck’s annual Essay Film Festival ran from 17-24 March and served up a lavish feast of riveting films. Those who’ve spent the past week or so beetling between the Birkbeck Cinema, Goethe-Institut and ICA to savour the festival’s competing, often complimentary, flavours will be digesting what they’ve seen, felt and thought for weeks to come.

All at the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image (BIMI) deserve congratulations and grateful thanks for an imaginatively curated season packed full of unforgettable images and nourishing ideas.

Two festival events, in particular, set my taste buds tingling. An appreciative audience gathered at the ICA on the evening of Saturday 19 March for Lost Film Found Film – a programme of four monumental short films by the supremely talented Sarah Wood, and, in the Birkbeck Cinema on Monday (21st) afternoon, we savoured a rare screening of Judith Williamson’s documentary essay on advertising, A Sign is a Fine Investment (1983). Williamson and Wood exemplify an increasingly prevalent form of the essay film often referred to as ‘filming without a camera’. Theirs is an ‘appropriation art’ of collage or assemblage that recalls Godard’s notion of film as “a form that thinks”; both rework, reshape and recontextualize found footage, moulding archive material into streams of audio-visual consciousness and multi-layered holistic wholes.

Elegantly intelligent film

The range and reach of Sarah Wood’s work is staggering. In Three Minute Warning (2012), she considers how the twin thrusts of cinema and aviation propelled the 20th Century forward, for good and ill. In 10 X Murmuration (2015), Wood’s precise editing and keen eye for an arresting image find their perfect match in a scintillating script by Helen McDonald (of H is for Hawk fame). Their elegantly intelligent film combines tales of doughty starlings and ‘traitorous’ skylarks with consideration of wartime radar experiments and mass observation ornithological surveys, espionage and national identity.

Sarah Wood. Three Minute Warning 2012

Sarah Wood. Three Minute Warning 2012

For Cultural Purposes Only (2009) glides elegantly between History with a capital H and the history of images while recounting the story of the Palestinian Film Archive – a painstakingly constructed collection of films tragically lost during Israel’s siege of Beirut in 1982. What, the film and programme notes ask, must it feel like never to see an image of your homeland, in our image-satured era?

I Am a Spy (2014) tells an amusing, but chilling anecdote about Stasi cross-dressing while probing the politics of representation and surveillance cultures. In conversation with Catherine Grant after the screenings, Wood confided that espionage runs in her blood. Both her parents spied for Britain. In her dotage, Wood’s grandmother would mumble about her time in Wormwood Scrubs but the family’s indulgent smiles froze when they learned the prison had served as MI5’s wartime HQ and that granny had been a spy too. Wood is as witty as she is gifted so that conversation and the subsequent Q&A provided the icing on the cake of a delicious evening.

A path through the maze of advertising

Judith Williamson’s A Sign is a Fine Investment is often compared to John Berger’s earlier Ways of Seeing series (1972) but cuts its own distinctive path through the maze of advertising. Unlike Berger, Williamson eschews conventional to-camera narration and largely allows the images to speak for themselves. Her starting point, she explained, was the assumption that, although the original context of any product is that of its production, the world of work is excluded from advertising. As she delved deeper into the archive, she was startled to discover that this has not always been the case and that when labour was associated with the national interest, in wartime for instance, images of the workplace were commonplace.

A Sign is a Fine Investment by Judith Williamson, 1983

A Sign is a Fine Investment by Judith Williamson, 1983

In this acutely analytical, often witty film, Williamson resists the false separation of production and consumption, the economic and the ideological, life and art. As she does in her better-known writing, she asks: if a product’s context is its production, what is the context of the consumer – without whom, after all, there can be no consumption? Inevitably, much of the film’s appeal lies in the nostalgia of recognising familiar products. Listening to Williamson recall more radical times, it was impossible not be nostalgic, too, for the days when the Arts Council would regularly commission non-commercial films like A Sign is a Fine Investment and Laura Mulvey’s Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti (1980), and when such work would be screened in independent cinemas like the Academy.

Williamson provided a salutary corrective to such rose-tinted temptations, though, by describing the fractious avant-garde turf wars she experienced back then, when arguments over competing representational strategies often turned nasty. In her essay ‘Two or Three Things We Know About Ourselves’, Williamson respectfully critiqued Laura Mulvey’s seminal film Riddles of the Sphinx for “locating both the struggle and its solution in the inner lives of the oppressed.”

As I sat in the Birkbeck Cinema listening to Judith Williamson respond to a respectful question from Laura Mulvey, I thought of footsteps and giants and experienced a rush of pride in the culture that produced two such extraordinary and significant figures. High among the achievements of this year’s Essay Film Festival was that of bringing them together.

Jerry Whyte also recently reviewed ‘The Pearl Button’ by Patricio Guzmán, and interviewed ‘The Club’ filmmaker Pablo Larrain for Cineoutsider

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