The film essay as form, ruminations around the essay film



Film Essay As Form


How do we make sense of the polemical term ‘essay film’ as well as the phrase ‘double helix,’ an expression coined by the late filmmaker Harun Farocki? Since the 1960s, artists have explored the narrative enigmas of the film essay. Still photography—cinema's ghostly parent—was eclipsed by the medium of film, but also set free. The rise of the moving image also obliged photography to make a virtue of its own stillness. Perhaps the essay film envied the simplicity, lightness, and precision of photography, and, as Chris Marker showed us in La Jetée (1962), it would be possible to create a compelling science-fiction film composed almost entirely of black-and-white photographs.

But what is a film essay today, in our contemporary moment of fleeting images? Is it a portrait, a conversation, a political statement, a question? To ponder this we look at frames made by four generations of moving-image makers—born in years ranging from the 1960s to the 1990s—this constellation of artists aim to challenge the traditional notion of the essay film in spaces ranging from Beirut to Cairo, Namibia to Detroit. 


Heather M. O'Brien
Assistant Professor, Studio Arts 
Department of Fine Arts and Art History
Center for Arts and Humanities Fellow
The American University of Beirut, Lebanon

Noor Tannir .  Power Cut  (film still), 4 min, 2017.

Noor Tannir. Power Cut (film still), 4 min, 2017.







Wednesday, February 27

10am - 10:30am: Opening Remarks by Heather M. O’Brien

10:30am - 12:30pm: Artist Presentations by Maha Maamoun, Rana ElNemrJasmina Metwaly

12:30pm - 1:30pm: Lunch Break

1:30pm - 3pm:  Artist Presentations by Katrin Winkler & Lee Anne Schmitt

7pm - 9pm: Film Screening at Sursock Museum with artists/filmmakers present for Q&A

Thursday, February 28

3pm - 4:30pm: Artist Presentations by Juli CarsonRania Stephan

4:30pm - 5pm: Tea Break

5pm - 7pm: Closed-Door Roundtable Discussions with all participants + recent AUB graduates/students Karima Al Gelany, Lana Barakeh, Nataly Hindaoui & Noor Tannir





American University of Beirut

Center for Arts and Humanities

Building 37

Wednesday, 27 February, 10:00 to 15:00

Thursday, 28 February, 15:00 to 19:00

Free admission

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Auditorium, Level – 2

Wednesday 27 February, 19:00 to 21:00 

Free admission

Seating is Limited

Maha Maamoun 

2026 (2010)

9 minutes


An iconic scene from Chris Marker’s film La Jetée(1962) of a man traveling back in time in post-apocalyptic Paris is re-enacted here in a deserted building in contemporary Egypt. The reading of an excerpt from The Revolution of 2053: The Beginning(2007), an Arabic-language science fiction novel by Egyptian author Mahmoud Osman has been dubbed over the photographic sequence. The artist created the video a year before the revolution of 2011 that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak. The afterlife of 2026 in the Egyptian political context lends an additional resonance to a work already meditating on the nature of memory, teleology, and cause and effect relations. Viewed today, the video appears to foretell real-world events, while returning us to the present-time of its production on the eve of a revolution by narrating a scene set on the threshold of fictional revolution.



Karima Al Gelany

The question (2017)

5 minutes 


Images of the city (Beirut) are overlaid with the­­––distorted––voice of the British philosopher Alan Watts as he poses questions regarding the value of our being in relation the surrounding reality. The film deals with the value––not of our being––but of the process of questioning itself. 



Heather M. O'Brien

dyad gaze (2019)

26 minutes


With Beirut as a backdrop, a young writer, Noor Tannir, recalls her first memory growing up in the city. The film weaves through the quotidian light of an old house in Hamra and asks questions about the place from which one speaks. In pondering dual gazes––interviewer/interviewee, teacher/student––the ground of positioning is called into question. A dyad narrative attempts to unravel through a singular testimony. 



Noor Tannir

Power Cut (2017)

4 minutes


Power Cut is a short confessional that is centralized at everyday existentialism. The naivety of the piece conjures a series of questions of reassurance. At the crux of confusion and transition, Power Cut offers a space in which the author can belong, reminiscent of a three-hour electricity cut in Beirut, where the author finds themselves unplugged, stripped down, thirsty for reassurance, and fairly curious. 



Rania Stephan

RIOT: 3 Movements (2017)

17 minutes 

In the summer of 2015, Lebanon faced a sudden and surreal garbage crisis that lasted over six months. The government’s incompetence put the people and environment at serious risk. The leaders preferred to postpone taking any action or decision until they could benefit from the solution and agree on a way to divide up the spoils. The face of their callous corruption was revealed in full. Mountains of garbage covered the streets, rivers, sea, and mountains themselves. Citizens took to the streets; large demonstrations lasted over six months. What started as joyful, inventive, and gregarious gatherings was crushed by force and infiltration. Lassitude crept in as internal divisions weakened the protest movement. Today, the solution to the garbage problem is still temporary. And nobody has taken responsibility for the mismanagement of the crisis, taking a heavy toll on the land and the population. This work captures the last of these demonstrations. It’s an attempt to understand how bodies form in a space of contestation. How they organize and dissipate, take on singularity then disappear again. A pretext to interrogate the idea of our fleeting victories and enduring defeats.


Jasmina Metwaly

From Behind the Monument (2013)

16 minutes 


A film essay about the relationship between the image, the spectacle, and the spectator, the narrative is built around Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo and the battle that happened there between the protesters and the riot police in 2011. The film speaks about the aftermath of an event creating a third reality for an understanding of what happened. It is not the street, the TV screen, but the reality of an abstracted space, such as a museum that allows for a different reflection of a story that by itself creates a new form of representation. This story is about how political images are turned into spectacles of the reality and how representation fails to go beyond its nature. It is also about an attempt to become an active participant in the event and the fear of touching the unknown. In the aftermath we all become the spectators. 



Rana ElNemr 

The Olympic Garden I (2009– 11) 

7 minutes 


Located behind ‘The Egyptian Olympic Centre’, on the amorphous line separating the upper middle class neighborhood of New Maadi and the Arab Al-Basateen informal area, ‘The Olympic Centre Garden’ has come to replace ’Al-Ahram Coop Complex’, which burned down completely in May 2007. The circumstances surrounding the fire were described then in Al-Gomhureya newspaper as 'mysterious'. Less mysterious accounts of the story still circulate amongst the residents of the surrounding area who are fathoming the nature of the new space in transience––a front-yard, a backyard, grass to grow, image to conserve. This work, when shown in an installation context, consists of three-channel still-image loops with sound and text. The slow paced loops follow three different logics and aspects of the space, its physical appearance, its actual use, its location and historic context, the power dynamics that happen within such a fragile space, and the projections, aims and dreams of people who use the space.

Katrin Winkler 

performing monuments (2018)

15 minutes


performing monuments is a continuation of the project towards memory which is also dealing visually with the consequences and (in)visibilities of Genocide, Apartheid and Racism in Namibia. This essay film looks closely at some of the nowadays commemorations to the Genocide by German colonial powers in Namibia, annual celebrations to mark Namibia’s independence and other sites like the H.E.S.S. telescopes that measure gamma rays. Furthermore the video material is accompanied by interviews with women dealing with the described topics coming from various backgrounds such as political activism, poetry, music and theater. The main focus of the piece is on the performativity of monuments and how memory is inscribed and transformed into the present moment. 




Sursock Museum

Auditorium, Level – 2

Wednesday 27 February, 19:00 to 21:00 

Free admission

With films by Karima Al Gelany, Rana ElNemr, Maha Maamoun, Jasmina Metwaly, Heather M. O’Brien, Lee Anne Schmitt, Noor Tannir, and Katrin Winkler. 


Following the screening, there will be a short discussion with the participating artists and filmmakers.

This screening is in conjunction with a film workshop and roundtable discussions at The Center for Arts and Humanities(CAH) at The American University of Beirut (AUB), February 27 – 28, 2019, in Building 37. The workshop is organized by Assistant Professor of Studio Arts, Heather M. O’Brien, Department of Fine Arts and Art History at AUB, as part of her 2018 – 2019 faculty fellowship with CAH.