Class One: Introduction to the Essay Film + Chris Marker’s LETTER FROM SIBERIA (1958)

Introduction to the Essay Film

If you want to good, short introduction to the essay film, take a look at the Deep Focus article in the August 2013 issue of Sight and Sound, where Andrew Tracy maps out the genre and invites critics and curators to write on 12 key films that were screened at the BFI Southbank as part of a series on the Essay Film.

For that series the BFI commissioned Kevin B. Lee to make a video essay on the essay film. In an accompanying article, Lee provides extensive notes on the essay film, but also on his own practice as a video essayist.

Chris Marker’s Letter From Siberia (1958)

Further Reading

There is a wealth of resources on Chris Marker online and I’ll link here to a selection of them that might be of use to you if you choose to write on Marker for either your critical commentaries or for your research paper.

To begin, perhaps, take a look at Chris Marker – Notes from an Era of Imperfect Memory, a site that has gathered together an astonishing number of links to Marker and Marker-related work online.

The invaluable Film Studies for Free has also featured several posts on Marker over the years. Look especially to In Immemory of Chris Marker, a post published in the days after Marker’s death in July of 2012.

In the wake of Marker’s death there were several commemorations online that provide both an overview of his life and a sense of how deeply attached his fans and followers are. A few obituaries provide a sense of Marker’s long, rich life: Richard Bergan’s in the Guardian, Dennis Lim’s in the New York Times, and Richard Brody’s in the New Yorker.

The texts of a selection of Marker’s films can be found at, including the spoken narration for Letter from Siberia, La Jetée and Sans Soleil.

Further Viewing – Marker

For an earlier collaborative work that takes on the question of the imperial plunder of colonial artefacts, watch Les statues meurent aussi (Alain Resnais/Chris Marker, 1953, France). On YouTube with English subtitles.

The film for which Marker is best know is La jetée (1963, France). It is available on a Criterion DVD alongside Sans Soleil (1983, France), which we will watch in the second class. It is not an essay film, but it is a film that, at times, functions like an essay on memory, desire, and time.

Another key early work by Marker is Le joli mai (1963, France), which he made in collaboration with Pierre Lhomme and which surveys Paris and Parisians during the month of May in 1962. It is a socio-political snapshot of France at that historical juncture. It is available on DVD from Icarus.

Further Viewing – Contemporaries

If you like Le joli mai, definitely watch Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch/Edgar Morin, 1961, France) as well. Directed by filmmaker anthropologist Rouch and sociologist Morin, it also provide a snapshot of early 1960s Paris and is an early example of what Morin himself termed cinéma-vérité. It is available as a Criterion DVD.

Related too, even though it is a fiction film, is Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. (1962, France), which is, as the Criterion site says, “a spirited mix of vivid vérité and melodrama.”

Finally, there was a lot of similar work being done in Canada around this time by the National Film Board of Canada. In Canada, led primarily by filmmakers from Québec, it was termed direct cinema. One interesting anomaly from this period is Of Sports and Men (Hubert Aquin, 1961, Canada), which was a collaboration with French semiotician and theorist Roland Barthes.


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