“Now is the time of the essay film.” So said the film-maker Mark Cousins to the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins in 2013. This realisation came to Cousins during the making his film, The First Movie, which was filmed in the Kurdish region of Iraq in 2009. One major problem that Cousins faced when making the film was that because the region was so dangerous, there were no cinematographers who were willing to work on the film. This did not stop Cousins though, and he decided to make the film himself using tiny, handheld cameras. What may have been perceived as an insurmountable obstacle was not only overcome, but actually created new ways of working and a new sense of freedom for Cousins. As he says,

“‘What I used to hate about filming is that I’d want to get up before dawn in Calcutta and film the sunrise. But you’d have to go knocking on the door of the director of photography, who’s sleeping, and say, ‘Please can you get up?’ This tiny camera, no bigger than a mobile phone, has become like a pen, he says: he can work alone, with the freedom of a prose essayist. ‘Now is the time of the essay film: that way of taking an idea for a walk.’”

Of course, the idea of the essay film, or cine essay as some film-makers like to call it, is not new, it’s just that it’s taken some time for technology to get to the point where the video camera and editing equipment are truly as portable and lightweight as the pen and the notebook. The idea of the film camera as a pen (or camera stylo as it is sometimes known) was introduced by Alexandre Astruc in his 1948 essay The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Camera-Stylo.

Astruc was one of many film theorists who had high expectations about the potential of cinema to go beyond mere entertainment and spectacle, and who believed that cinema was capable of expressing complex, philosophical thought. He believed that cinema could be the intellectual equal of the novel or the philosophical essay, and nearly seventy years ago he said,

“Maurice Nadeau wrote in an article in the newspaper Combat: ‘If Descartes lived today, he would write novels.’ With all due respect to Nadeau, a Descartes of today would already have shut himself up in his bedroom with a 16mm camera and some film, and would be writing his philosophy on film: for his Discours de la Methods would today be of such a kind that only the cinema could express it satisfactorily. […] From today onwards, it will be possible for the cinema to produce works which are equivalent, in their profundity and meaning, to the novels of Faulkner and Malraux, to the essays of Sartre and Camus.”

But was Astruc right? Well, the philosopher John Gray might agree that he was. Indeed, Gray might well go further and say that the film-makers of today are doing a better job than academic philosophers in exploring some of the key philosophical issues of our time. In his review of a collection of Nietzsche’s lectures on education, entitled Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, Gray tells us that,

“Justin Kurzel’s film of Macbeth presents an uncompromisingly truthful vision of the human situation unlike anything in the academic study of the humanities at the present time. The Wire and Breaking Bad explored the contradictions of ethics with a rigour and realism that is lacking in the baroque disquisitions on justice and altruism that occupy philosophers. Amazon’s version of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is a more compelling rendition of the slipperiness of consensus reality than you will find in any number of turgid volumes of critical theory.”

Of course, neither Gray nor anyone else is saying that one form of expression is, per se, better than another. And Astruc’s point about Descartes is deliberately designed to be provocative and polemical. To argue that the cine essay is better than the essay is as pointless as trying to argue which account of the Holocaust is the best; Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah, Primo Levi’s memoir If This Is A Man, or David Cesarani’s book The Final Solution. The point is that the essay and the cine essay can present different perspectives on the same subject, and will reveal different things about that subject through the specificity of the different media.

But the question we need to ask is what does this have to do with teaching and learning? Well, if we are persuaded that film is capable of expressing complex, philosophical thought, and if we are also persuaded that the equipment with which to make films is small, portable and already in the hands of many students, then it may follow that, on occasion, we might want to ask their students to submit a cine essay instead of an essay. And this is where the work of LSE lecturer Professor William A. Callahan comes in. Professor Callahan leads a course in Visual International Relations at LSE, and his students are regularly assessed via documentary films. The reason for this is, he says, that

“Documentaries encourage students to work collaboratively, reinforce concepts learnt, and generate new knowledge as well as resources that can be used by future students. Allowing students to create knowledge (and materials) together seems an excellent practice, so it’s a surprise it isn’t more widespread.”

Professor Callahan’s decision to introduce documentary making as an assessed component of his course came from his own experiences of making films, after he took a short course in documentary film-making and started making his own films. As he found out from his own experiences as a filmmaker, the camera is capable of recording the

“nonlinguistic and nonrepresentational aspects of knowledge: the laughs, sighs, shrugs, cringes and tears that are provoked in the on-camera interview process, which then can be edited into an engaging set of images that, in turn, can produce laughs, cringes and tears in the film’s audience.”

And it is this ability to convey meaning and to persuade through the use of images that he wants his students to understand when they take his course.

“That’s what the students get by the end of the course. They know how to write an essay but by the end of the course they should know how to, not just convince us with their academic, rational thinking, but move us through their images, move us emotionally.”

While it may not be possible to get access to the kind of equipment used by Callahan and his students, mobile phone manufacturers are continually trying to persuade us of the high quality of the cameras in their phones. Apple’s Shot on an iPhone campaign was a major part of the iPhone 6 release, Samsung have their own Captured on a Samsung S7 gallery, and most of the other big mobile manufacturers make great claims about the quality of the cameras in their phones. And there are now film festivals entirely dedicated to screening films shot on mobile phones, including the Mobile Motion Film Festival and the Mobile Film Festival, which is running for the twelfth time in 2017. Given than many of these devices are already in the pockets of our students, is now a good time to consider the cine essay?

Tips and recommendations

1. Probably the most important recommendation for anyone thinking about asking their students to submit a film or documentary, is firstly to have a go a making a film yourself. If you don’t have your own film-making gear, the LearnTech team can lend you an iPad so that you can have a go at making a film. The LearnTech iPads come with iMovie (a film editing program), so you can film and edit on the iPad. You can also borrow an iPad tripod from the LearnTech team.

2. If you don’t know where to start there are some usful introductory guides about making films on mobile devices. This one from Tom Barrance is worth a look: http://learnaboutfilm.com/making-a-film/filmmaking-iphones-ipads/

3. You can learn how to use iMovie to edit your film by signing up to the course on Lynda.com. All staff at the University can access Lynda courses for free (unfortunately students cannot access Lynda courses for free at the present time). The iMovie on iPad course is here: https://www.lynda.com/iMovie-tutorials/iMovie-iOS-Essential-Training/165441-2.html

4. If you can get a few people together then it may be possible to run a one day workshop for staff who are interested in learning how to film and edit using iPads. If this is something you’d like to do, feel free to email me: robert.farmer@northampton.ac.uk

5. This one is important. While the LearnTech team can lend iPads to members of staff for short periods of time, there is nowhere in the University where students can borrow film-making equipment (unless they are film/media/photography students). Thus, any film or documentary assignment will rely on students having their own equipment. Although most students do have smartphones, not all will have one, so you may want to make any film assessment into group projects.

6. If you do decide to alter an assessment to make it a film submission you will need to have your module re-validated. This is not an especially onerous process, but you may like to ask a Learning Designer to help you with this. Learning Designers can help you to design a suitable moving image assessment and can check through your learning outcomes to ensure that new assessment aligns with the learning outcomes. To change a module for the forthcoming academic year, you will ideally need to be ready to submit the revalidation paperwork in the January of the current academic year.

7. Prior to making any changes to a module and introducing a film/documentary assignment, it may be worthwhile asking your current students what they think of the idea.

8. Film-making can be quite time-consuming, so it might be best to err on the side of caution and keep the film length short, especially if it is the first time your students have sumitted a film. Five minutes is plenty of time, and could easily equate to 2.5 assessment units in a group project with two or three students per group. Again, a Learning Designer can help you with this process.

9. NILE fully supports student moving image submissions. Students can upload their completed films to http://video.northampton.ac.uk and can submit them to assignment submission points in NILE. Staff can view these film submissions directly in NILE without having to download them. Staff can also use http://video.northampton.ac.uk to upload their own films and embed them into NILE modules.

10. If you find that you really start to enjoy film-making and want to take things to the next level, you can learn all about making films from one of the great modern masters, Werner Herzog: https://www.masterclass.com/classes/werner-herzog-teaches-filmmaking

More information about William Callahan

If you would like to know more about William Callahan’s approach you can read about it here: http://lti.lse.ac.uk/lse-innovators/william-a-callahan-visual-international-politics-student-movies/

You can also watch him talking about it here: https://vimeo.com/140330542

You can view his films and the films of his students here: https://vimeo.com/billcallahan

And you can read his paper, The visual turn in IR: documentary filmmaking as a critical method here: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/64668/

Useful Links*

21 tips, tricks and shortcuts for making movies on your mobile: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/12/21-tips-tricks-and-shortcuts-for-making-movies-on-your-mobile

10 tips for editing video: http://blog.ted.com/10-tips-for-editing-video/

7 interviewing tips for video storytellers: http://blog.ed.ted.com/2016/11/23/7-interviewing-tips-for-video-storytellers/

How our mobile-only TV package made the network news: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/academy/entries/c1b5506f-c627-417e-8958-ca36aaf86f01

Instead Of A Book Report, My Students ‘Wrote’ A Video: http://www.teachthought.com/the-future-of-learning/technology/instead-of-a-book-report-my-students-wrote-a-video/

6 Steps to Media Creation in the Classroom: http://dailygenius.com/6-steps-media-creation-classroom/

* Many thanks indeed to Belinda Green for the useful links.

3 Responses to “Now is the time of the essay film”

  1. Julie Usher says:

    If you’re looking for more examples to inspire your students and help them understand the power of visual storytelling, you might want to show them some of the recent winners of the Research in Film awards – short documentary films that convey research in really powerful ways. A good place to start is this shortlist in The Conversation..

  2. rjbyles says:

    Really enjoyed this reading the article, there’s also lots of other ways for students to generate content other than camera footage; such as running a series of images in a slideshow, recording audio on a phone for a voice over, and using existing footage or screen capturing an interview from Skype / Collaborate. As equipment is in short supply would be good to explore these other options

  3. russ says:

    Rob Farmer film guru