I call the films of Stefany Anne Golberg "essay films." The term has been around for a while now and I prefer it to the other possible moniker "new documentary" for reasons that will be apparent shortly. The genre of the essay film was more or less, though unintentionally, established by the French filmmaker Chris Marker when he made Sans soleil. A more recent example is the Chilean director Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light.
The central question in talking about essay films is: why use the word "essay" to talk about a film. What makes a film "essay-like?" To answer that, we have to spend a few minutes thinking about what an essay is. You might think that's an easy thing to do, but it is actually pretty tricky. So, let's start by first saying what an essay is not. An essay is not, primarily, an argument, though it might contain arguments. An essay doesn't prove anything, nor does it exhaust any subject. The root meaning of the word "essay" is, after all, "to try, to attempt." To make an essay is just to "have a go at something." So, essays are much less about conclusions and much more about process. The central act of faith that guides any essay writer is the faith that if you just keep thinking, just keep writing, you'll get somewhere.
In an essay about Montaigne by Ralph Waldo Emerson, we find the following quote.
We are persuaded that a thread runs through all things: all worlds are strung on it: and men, and events, and life, come to us, only because of that thread.
So, I think we can say that all essay writers are essentially thread pullers. The excitement of pulling on threads is that you don't know exactly where the thread will lead you. The best essays generally get lost a bit somewhere in the middle. The vastness of possible connections always threatens to overwhelm the essay writer. History looms. Nature beckons. The essay writer can get immobilized by the near-infinite reservoir of stuff, from the stuff of the cosmos to the stuff we've said, stuff we've done, stuff we've made…. there's so much stuff and it all seems relevant.
That is where it is essential to stop and breath. After a deep breath or two, the fear subsides. You remember that you are finite. You go back to pulling on the thread, which always leads from one concrete thing to another, even as it relies, ultimately, on the cosmic interconnectedness of all things.
This need to pull on threads and yet not to get lost in the infinite spool of yarn is also what leads most essayists to trust in the touchstone of their own experience. Montaigne famously says in his little preface to the reader, "It is myself I paint." This isn't a result of self-aggrandizement or self-absorption. It is, actually, an act of humility. Each one of us has only one way through the world. The thread that we pull on and follow is ultimately the thread of the self. We follow that thread out into the world and into connections with our fellow human beings. But the starting and ending point of the thread can only be found within our own souls.
Here's an example of what I mean. In the film Poland, Stefany finds herself searching for her grandmother's childhood home in Lublin. That's the thread she is pulling on. That thread leads her to the plains of Saskatchewan, to find the almost non-existent remnants of the farm where her grandmother lived as a young woman after the family fled Poland. The thread also leads Stefany to call on the ghost of Marie Curie, who becomes a touchstone in the film, a fellow-traveler in the experience of being an exile from Poland, of wondering what makes home, home and of trying to discover origins. Curie was searching so hard for her true place in the world that she stumbled upon some of the hitherto unknown secrets of matter itself. Those secrets, radioactive, would end up, literally, killing her. These are the inherent dangers of pulling on threads. You never know exactly what you will find, or what price you'll have to pay in the searching.
At its core, Stefany's Poland film is about the trauma associated with pulling on the threads of your own family history. Such intimate history never takes you where you think you are going to go at the outset. It never resolves itself as you hope it might at the beginning of the journey. That's why essays, especially those that begin in the self, are never complete, they always contain loose threads, paths not taken, stories that could have been told otherwise.
Essays should never hide these disjunctions, which bids us to say a thing or two about how the "film" part of the essay film fits together with the "essay" part. In an essay film, we don't just have words, we have images too. The danger of putting images to an essay is that the images could serve to fix the ideas visually and by doing so kill the natural fluidity of the essay. Think of it like this: if this essay I'm reading right now was a film, a picture of Montaigne might flash on the screen when I talk about Montaigne. That's a very literal style of relating words to images. It is generally the kind of thing you see in straight documentary films. It has its place, even in the essay film. But the essay film must also break this one to one correspondence between word and image.
That's because the visual world has one kind of logic and language has another. These two things are related, of course…. Everything is related, that is the faith of the essayist. But the relation isn't an obvious or surface relation. So, the true artist of the essay film will often allow visuals to go off in one direction while the language goes off in another. Then, in the moments when the visuals and the language do come together again, the shock, the excitement of it is all the stronger.
In the film Antwerp, Stefany is wandering around the city of Antwerp, ostensibly looking for a lost cat. She's also wandering around the history of the city. Ultimately, she's finding traces of violence and dislocation in the landscape of a city that, today, has suppressed all its tumultuous history under the veneer of, let's call it, "European café-style bourgeois pleasantness." Sometimes this creates funny, although disturbing-funny, situations. For instance, Stefany describes terrible scenes of violence from the religious wars of the 16th century. All the while, her camera roams around corny-looking life-size wax figures from a regional museum display. This is the best Antwerp has to offer when it comes to visual reminders of the repressed violence embedded in its past. The quasi-desperate, over-literalness of the images is what makes these scenes work.
But there are also moments in the film that are moving and shocking precisely for the restraint of word and image. Stefany mentions in her voice over, almost in passing, that Belgium has always been a place that invading armies crash through on their way somewhere else. She doesn't illustrate this with, say, footage of the German Wehrmacht in the midst of a Blitzkrieg. Instead, she includes but one black and white image of a man in a gas mask. It is on the screen so briefly as barely to register. But the essentially indescribable horrors of trench warfare that have scarred Belgium to this day are invoked all the more powerfully by Stefany's willingness to let images do what they do on their own terms. That's the true art of the essay film in general and of Stefany's films in particular.
One final brief note about sound. In the earliest, silent films, the sound associated with film was primarily the mechanical whirring of the projector. There was a rhythmic, cyclical quality to this sound, not unlike the organic sounds of our own meat machines: blood circulating through the body, air being sucked in and out through the lungs. The sound of Stefany's voice sets the pace in the three films we are watching today. Stefany is attuned to the natural rhythms of language in the way she narrates her scripts. But there is also the soundtrack that she composed and performed, which conveys a deeper sense of beat and pulse and rhythm. This sound has a mesmerizing quality, as if we are listening to the musical quality of things themselves, or even deeper than that, to what Virginia Woolf called the hum of Being.
So, these films are essays in three senses of the term: visually, they are an attempt to see the world; aurally, they are an attempt to hear the world, and conceptually, they are an attempt to follow a thread of meaning wherever it may lead. I'll only add, as if that weren't enough, that, to me, these are tremendously beautiful films.