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Deep Focus: BFI’s 12 Best Essay Films Review – Emmanuel Johnson

12 BFI’s essay film depict an embodiment of critical discourse relevant within today’s society. Some of the concepts covered include: identity, the male gaze and semiotic representations including signs and symbols. These essay films are a film style which was originally from 20th century in Europe

These essay films are a film style which was originally from the 20th century in Europe. The essay film mainly talk about the humans, the behavior of the humans and the relationships between the humans.  From the 12 examples, it can be said that certain editing techniques, ideas and symbols are necessary in the formation of a good narrative for an essay film.

Montage techniques is used in most of these essay films. This is used in conveying their messages to members of the audience in an attractive manner.

One of the most basic method which is frequently-used is movie clip. Montage technique applies here to put two relative characters whom cannot be shot in a same photographic film. According to Tang & Rua, the purpose is to emphasises the relationship between the characters (1994). ‘The house is black’ is one of the examples in which this montage technique applied. The director portrays the life in a suffering leper colony through a girl’s eyes.

Another montage technique is used in ‘F’ for Fake. Rhythmic Montage technique applies in scenes that feature different camera angles within the same plot. In which the camera switch between a woman and the faces of men, the director has shown the woman is the object of male pleasure. Which refers to what Mulvey (1975) says that women are still caught within the language of the patriarchy. Woman’s appearance is coded a strong sensual visual to men.  This is seen clearly in this film when the man’s eyes following the girls’ movement.

Moving on to À propos de Nice, this film uses comparative montage in order to express the different gaps between the poor and rich people who live in Àpropos in 1930 (Gu, 2017).

Whereas How to Live in the German Federal Republic uses tonal montage to tells its story about life style in Germany in that era.

The narrative methods sometimes are used in the essay film to help the audience understand the theme of the film easily (Furman and etc, 2007). The director in ‘Sans Soleil’ uses its narrative to tell story about a huge difference between Japan and Guinea-Bissau.

On the other hand, Handsworth Songs however points out the plight of Black people and the reason why there was a civil unrest in Birmingham. In addition, black-and-white screen is used to emphasize the negative realities in the essay films (Wang, 2014). For example, ‘La Guerre d’un seul homme’ has described lives of French and German after France had been occupied by Germany in the World War Two. Voice-overs are frequently used in showing useful information about the film, the voice-over is more objective in comparison to the one from characters (Franco and etc, 2010). A Diary for Timothy highlights the cruelties of war through the voice-over which also applies in the film ‘Letter to Jane’. Besides the voice-over, ‘Letter to Jane’ uses a photo-journalistic mode of expression as its editing technique.

This also applies in ‘Los Angeles Plays Itself with 200 clips used to make this essay film. Apparently, a use of solemn classical music in Toute la mémoire du mondehas powerfully shown the beauty of the France cultural heritage (Zhang, 2006).






Min Gu, (2017).  A Study of Comparative Montage ‘s Application in Dance Skills, Popular literature and art, China.


Franco, E., Matamala, A., & Orero P. (2010). Voice-over Translation. The Journal of Specialised Translation, New York.


Furman, O. Dorfman, et al. (2007). They saw a movie: Long-term memory for an extended audiovisual narrative. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, USA.


Tang, J., R, M. (1994), Montage: Providing Teleproximity for Distributed Groups, Human Factors in Computing System. Boston, Massachusetts USA.


Wang, Y. (2014). An Analysis of the Artistic Functions of Black and White in Color Films. Shanghai.



Zhang, J. (2006). On the Basic Functions of Film Music. BeiJing


Written by Yi Yang, Hongji Gao, Stephanie Silitonga and Emmanuel Johnson



Reference list


Tracy, A. (2015) ‘The Essay Film’ Deep Focus [online] available from <http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/deep-focus/essay-film> [3rd February 2017].

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