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The Essay Film as Critical Thought (Online)

Aimed at those interested in furthering their understanding of critical filmmaking, this online course will explore the meaning and the legacy of the essay film, both from a historical and a contemporary perspective.

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This online course is targeted towards those interested in furthering their understanding of critical filmmaking, for those thinking about the politics of image making, and for those exploring theoretical and practical approaches both in relation to constructing images and for thinking about images.

Each session will consider the relationship between theoretical ideas and how they influence and affect formal approaches to image making. We will explore the meaning and legacy of the essay film, and unpack the importance of this mode of filmmaking both to the history of cinema, and to contemporary modes of cinema.

Session 1: Voice as Narrator 

  • We explore how the voice articulates the films argument and the images exist in parallel, reflecting the central argument.
  • Explanatory voiceover, ‘the voice of God’.
  • Examples include: Adam Curtis, Thom Anderson, Manthia Diawara.

Session 2: Questioning the Authority of the Voice

  • We explore films complicating the voice, through use of non-explanatory tones including poetic, fictional, collective.
  • The voice as subjective, departing from a dominant authoritative narrator.
  • Examples include: Babette Mangolte, Patrick Keiller, Paige Taul, Marguerite Duras.

Session 3: Beyond Voice

  • Looking at compilation or ‘found footage films’, to analyse how messages are developed strictly through the editing and placement of images and their relationships.
  • Turning to the use of Soviet Montage in practice, and subverting the meaning embedded in the image through the juxtaposition of different images.
  • Examples include: Esfir Shub, Harun Farocki.

Session 4: Legacy of Montage

  • We move towards examples of filmmakers drawing from experimental traditions to craft arguments through a range of approaches such as montage and the juxtapositions between image, text, and voice.
  • The legacy of montage as a tool for contemporary experimental filmmakers thinking critically through image making.
  • Examples Include: Chris Harris, Sky Hopinka, Cauleen Smith.

Session 5: Workshop Movement and British Film Collectives

  • Building on these aesthetic and theoretical approaches, we turn to a case study to reflect how these ideas manifest through the workshop movement and British Film Collectives across the 1980s.
  • British 1980s Filmmaking, community filmmaking, feminist collectives, public television.
  • Examples include WITCH, Black Audio Film Collective.

Session 6: Personal as Political

  • Looking at the use of subjective position to explore histories and legacies of trauma.
  • Pointing to post-colonial questions and representing ‘lost’ accounts and experiences.
  • Examples include: Kidlat Tahimik, Trinh T. Minh-ha.


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Still from Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller, United Kingdom, 2010).



Matthew Barrington


Matthew Barrington is a film curator, researcher and educator based in London. He holds the position of Film Curator at the Barbican Centre, London, he is a Curator for the Essay Film Festival and manages the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image. In addition to these roles he has recently completed his Doctoral Thesis at Birkbeck University, London exploring Slow Cinema. He has taught modules on film curation, the essay film and archival cinema at Birkbeck University, Queen Mary and UCL and his writing on film has appeared in Sight and Sound.