Essay films are generic border-crossers par excellence. As a performative and self-reflective mode of the documentary, they often also seek out real borders from which they start their philosophical or socio-political exploration. A number of recent essay films, increasingly made by women artists and filmmakers, however, produce and work-with an invisible psychic borderspace, which is porous and in which modes of affect, reciprocity and transconnectivity are foregrounded. These typically lyrical essay films, at times bordering on the fantastical, accommodate libidinal-erotic flows and other psychic energies and imprints, conjointly but differently, of jouissance, trauma, phantasy, the spiritual. Interested in this group of essayistic films at large, my talk focuses on Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog (2015), more specifically.
Drawing partly on Adriana Cavarero’s relational ontology and partly on Bracha Ettinger’s model of ‘the matrixial’ and processes of ‘metramorphosis’, my paper traces the affective and aesthetic dynamics that are inscribed in Anderson’s multiply threaded story of personal love, longing and loss. Channelling her own relation with her mother through other modes of relating, most prominently to her late husband, the musician Lou Reed, and her dog Lolabelle, Heart of a Dog enables the filmmaker to learn something about herself, cope with her loss and share with her audience some sense of hope for the future. Her film, as I argue, provides us with a less phallocentric, relational and future-oriented mode and model of human becoming.
Brenda Hollweg is Research Fellow in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds. She has published widely on the cinematic essay, incl. the works of Patricio Guzman, Kathy High, Agnès Varda and Olivier Zuchuat. In 2019, she co-edited World Cinema and the Essay Film (EUP, with Igor Kristić), focusing on the labour of essayistic film practice in transnational contexts. Currently, she explores how women artists and filmmakers engage with the essayistic to resist systemic forms of violence in affective and aesthetic ways. In March 2021, she co-published Days In Between: Marianna Christofides (Hatje Cantz).
Problematic ideological strategies of in/visibility are played out today around borders by exploiting advanced image-making technologies and hegemonic media discourses. Conversely, drawing on the essay film form’s border-crossing, in-between status, a number of contemporary films engage in ‘borderwork’ to counteract the ‘thinness’ of the image of borders in mainstream and surveillance media—and the dematerializion, dehistoricization, and delocalization of the globalized media themselves (Hardt and Negri).
The essay films that interest me here do not represent the border nor document it; they constitute a Derridean limitrophy: they are a study not only of the limit, but also of what generates, complicates, and ‘thickens’ it. Their performance of the border is self-reflexive to the point of becoming a theory of it. Here, I draw on the Deleuzian concept of the fold, and on how case studies such as Armin Linke’s Alpi (2011), Philip Scheffner’s Havarie (2016), and Tadhg O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall (2017) work with filmic devices including lenses, step-printing, transitions, and sound mixing, to begin to develop a semiotics of the ‘thick’ film-essayistic border image.
As this semiotics reveals, the unfolding of borders by essay films is governed by temporalizing strategies which prolong the activity of cognizance and apprehension of the limit. This deceleration at once resonates with the stalled temporality of the border and theorises the boundary not as a place, but as a method and an operation.
Laura Rascaroli is Professor of Film and Screen Media at University College Cork, Ireland. She is the author of five monographs, including How the Essay Film Thinks (Oxford UP, 2017), The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film (Wallflower, 2009), and Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and the European Road Movie (with Ewa Mazierska, Wallflower, 2006), and the coeditor of collections including Expanding Cinema: Theorizing Film Through Contemporary Art (Amsterdam UP, 2020) and Antonioni: Centenary Essays (BFI, 2011). Her work has been translated into several languages. She is General Editor of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media.
How can essay film think through questions of borders, refugeehood, and futurity in geopolitical contexts marked by a perpetual sense of crisis and conflict? How might artists and filmmakers imagine dialogic pasts for communities and regions left outside the dominant narrative of Western progress? And can speculative visions of the future illuminate a present that continues to be shaped by histories of colonialism, slavery, and neocolonial practices? I will explore these questions by thinking alongside recent essay films which take the recent “refugee crisis” across European borderscapes as a point of departure for pondering palimpsestic histories of border crossing, migration, and diaspora. Notably, the conceptualization and figuring of refugee imaginaries and timescapes in these essay films challenges the typical state-centric frameworks for spatially distributed bordering practices.
A key operation of such systems is the creation of temporalities of crisis, which cast migration as the source of an ever-present impending “invasion” or “threat,” obscuring the degree to which contemporary practices of displacement are rooted in the historical violence of empire and its multiplying afterlives. Borderscapes thus emerge as post-apocalyptic landscapes where refugees and migrants appear as ahistorical, archetypal figures—the traumatized/sympathetic victim or one of its counterpoints, the threatening “illegal,” the economic migrant, or the “criminal swarm,” all condemned to the spatio-temporality of a never-ending crisis-present. In this talk, I will explore the ways in which essayistic film work allows for a reframing and rethinking of the dominant “emergency/crisis” framework from the perspective of multi-directional memories and critical dystopias as well as the longue durée of migration and social interconnectedness.
Nilgun Bayraktar is Assistant Professor of Film at the History of Art and Visual Culture Program and Film Program at California College of the Arts. Her work, focusing on migrant and diasporic cinema, contemporary art, and critical border studies, has been published in journals including Journal of European Studies and New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film. Her recent book, Mobility and Migration in Film and Moving Image Art: Cinema Beyond Europe (Routledge 2016), examines cinematic and artistic representations of migration and mobility in Europe since the 1990s. She recently curated the exhibition No Place Else: Dystopian Sci-Fi Imagination (CCA San Francisco), which explored concepts of the dystopian city, the post-human, AI, and ecological crises.