Edgar Morin, the co-director of Chronique d’un été once said, ““Talking of the essay film, I would rather refer to the attitude of he who attempts (essaie) to debate a problem by using all the means that the cinema affords, all the registers and all the expedients.”
It’s an interesting remark, and one which serves as a fitting preface for the TIFF Cinematheque’s latest instalment in their Fall programme. With “The Way of the Termite: The Essay Film” (November 6 - December 3), the Cinematheque showcases a series of films by filmmakers that fulfill Morin’s edict. Certainly, these are films that use the whole of the buffalo.
In keeping with the TIFF Cinematheque’s mandate to screen important work from world cinema’s most formidable practitioners—Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Luis Bunuel, Pier Palo Passolini, Chantal Ackerman, Dziga Vertov, &c.—“The Way of the Termite” serves as a fitting follow-up to the Cinematheque’s recent nouvelle vague programme. Think of these as New Wave documentaries. These are films that redefine (or defiantly ignore) the parameters of documentary and actuality filmmaking in the same way that Rhommer, Rivette and Truffaut discovered narrative cinema anew.
Films like Welles’s late-period masterpiece F For Fake (1974) or Bunuel’s early docufiction exploration of poverty in the backwater mountainous regions of Spain in Las Hurdes have the filmmakers prankishly toying with the expectations of documentary cinema. These films mix fact, fabulation or (in Welles’ case) bald-faced hucksterism to create sprawling, intimate cine-essays of subjects as far ranging as forgery (F For Fake), poverty (Las Hurdes), time (Marker’s San Soleil), celebrity (Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Letter a Jane), and the art of cinema itself (Vertov’s consummate Man With A Movie Camera). Anyone working under the assumption that Guy Maddin minted docu-fantasia with his just-as accomplished My Winnipeg (2007) could stand to take a lesson from any one of these films.
As if the programme’s robust line-up wasn’t enough, the Cinematheque has upped the ante, welcoming distinguished filmmaker and University of California professor Jean-Pierre Gorin to Toronto to guide curious filmgoers down these films’ many rabbit holes. After founding the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Luc Godard in 1968, Gorin and Godard went on to codirect a number of films, including Le Vent d’est (1970), Tout va bien (1972) and Letter to Jane (1972). His own films include Poto and Cabengo (1978), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crazy Life (1991).
Echoing Edgar Morin’s comments, Gorin himself describes the TIFF Cinematheque’s Essay Film programme thusly, “The most inclusive description of [their] art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement…risks were taken and no apologies will be offered for the fallout; compromises were made and they will be assumed. From the push and pull that is curating emerged something as extensive, unruly, contradictory as the essayistic energy it set out to explore. A proposal for a tussle.”
These are rare films. Films that deserve to be seen and deserve to be discussed. And they’re precisely the sorts of films that a heavyweight like Gorin is fit to present.
“The Way of the Termite: The Essay Film” commences this Friday November 6th at the TIFF Cinematheque (Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas Street West, in the AGO). Kicking things off is Chris Marker’s genre-defying travelogue San Soileil, preceded by a discussion by Mr. Gorin.
For the complete schedule and to purchase tickets in advance (highly recommended as these screenings have a tendency to sell out briskly), head to the TIFF Cinematheque website.