The essay film is one of the most subjective film genres. It usually builds personal discourses from its author’s thoughts and feelings, avoiding the temptation of developing totalizing statements. This form of filmmaking seems particularly appropriate for counteracting hegemonic discourses with critical insights, so the outsider’s perspective should help to release filmmakers from any ideological or economic constraint. All filmmakers, however, have their own agenda and point of view regarding the city, as well as their own style of writing and reasoning. Accordingly, there is no wonder that their essay films on certain cities have been highly influenced by two types of relations: the relation between the filmmaker and the city –a specific relation, based on his or her sense of belonging to a particular place– and the relation between the filmmaker and cinema – an abstract relation that relies on both taste and experience.
We should therefore begin by discussing the profile of filmmakers who make essay films on cities. What are their bonds to these places? Are they locals or foreigners? Anyone can say anything about anywhere, of course, but the depth and scope of the resulting film will vary depending on the level of knowledge and the sense of belonging that filmmakers have regarding the depicted cities. Actually, there is no single ideal position. A local filmmaker should have more to say about his or her own city than a foreigner, but it could also be otherwise. It is basically a matter of interest, curiosity and sensibility.
This debate has been open for a long time. I remember, for example, a staged sequence in Lightning over Braddock: A Rust Bowl Fantasy (Tony Buba, 1988) in which a local reporter argues with a foreign TV critic about who has the right to depict what was going on in the Rust Belt in the 1980s. Let me reproduce an excerpt from their conversation:
TV Critic: Finally, sophisticated media who know how to tell a story are getting involved. (…) Local people (…) fail to see the big picture, and also contribute to misappropriations of political struggle.
Local Reporter: My father worked for the mills for forty years. You mean to tell me that someone from out of town can tell the story better than I could?
TV Critic: Yes, that’s precisely what I’m saying, because you can’t be objective. And your subjectivity may be poetic and well-intentioned but is probably provincial.
This argument actually works as a reductio ad absurdum, that is, a parody to criticize the haughty position of mass media at a time in which they claimed to hold the monopoly of the truth. Faced with such an assumption, Tony Buba, the director of Lightning over Braddock, also claimed his right to depict the plight of his hometown from the inside, from the local experience, embracing a subjective approach – an essayistic approach, after all – as an alternative to the supposed objective truth of journalistic documentaries.
The foreigner’s perspective, however, may also be freer than the local. In fact, it is somehow closer to the outsider’s perspective. Hito Steyerl, for instance, has made an excellent film about urban renewal in Berlin in the 1990s, The Empty Centre (1998), in which she explicitly aligns her discourse with the immigrant’s gaze. Steyerl is not exactly a foreigner, because she has become a Berlin-based artist; but she is neither a local, since she was born in Munich. Moreover, her Japanese origins distinguish her from most Germans. This hybrid perspective, which is similar to Chantal Akerman’s in News from Home (1977), allows her to focus on certain details that may go unnoticed for a local. Thus, both Akerman – a Jewish Belgian woman in New York City – and Steyerl use their personal backgrounds to offer a new take on these cities that go beyond the official and well-known discourses about urban crisis and renewal.
The relation between a filmmaker and cinema itself also conditions any essay film, as I said above, since every filmmaker comes from a different aesthetic tradition when entering this domain: Akerman, for example, came from structural filmmaking; Buba from Pittsburgh’s amateur film scene; and Steyerl from the German essay film tradition, represented, among others, by Harun Farocki. All filmmakers have their own set of practices and references that influence their work one way or another: Guy Maddin, for example, has quoted Patrick Keiller’s London (1994) as a source of inspiration for My Winnipeg (2007), but the major influence on his work actually comes from silent film and classical genres such as melodramas and horror movies. By using fictional techniques, what Maddin ultimately does in My Winnipeg is mythologize the city’s local history in order to depict a mindscape rather than a cityscape, that is, a model of relationship with our everyday environment in which subjective perception and personal inventions are valid tools to develop a cognitive map beyond objective representations.
Similarly, we must understand the wandering gaze in two different ways: as a wandering gaze through the city, through its urban fabric –its streets, squares and spaces – but also as a wandering gaze through its previous representations, from maps to films, which filmmakers such as Thom Andersen or Peter von Bagh, as well as Terence Davies in Of Time and the City (2008), have combined and recombined in search of new meanings for these spaces and representations. Thus, while Akerman recorded a geographical drift through New York City in News from Home, Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) provided the audience with a model to develop film dérives anywhere. Akerman and Andersen represent opposite ways to depict the city, but their respective models have been followed by other filmmakers all over the world, such as Alberte Pagan in Bs. As. (2006) – a family portrait that also works as an urban portrait, just as News from Home – and Tony Zhou in Vancouver Never Plays Itself (2015) – a metafilmic essay that adapts the tone and structure of Los Angeles Plays Itself to the case of Vancouver. Our gaze at the city is, in short, a gaze at both streets and screens.