Reception of Contemporary Spanish Essay Film

Norberto Mínguez-Arranz, Jorge Clemente-Mediavilla, Luis Deltell-Escolar

Reception of Contemporary Spanish Essay Film

ICONO 14, Revista de comunicación y tecnologías emergentes, vol. 20, no. 1, 2022

Asociación científica ICONO 14

La recepción del ensayo audiovisual español contemporáneo

A recepção do ensaio audiovisual espanhol contemporáneo

Norberto Mínguez-Arranz *

Department of Applied Communication Science in the Information Science Faculty at the Complutense University, Spain

Jorge Clemente-Mediavilla **

Department of Applied Communication Science in the Information Science Faculty at the Complutense University, Spain

Luis Deltell-Escolar ***

Department of Applied Communication Science in the Information Science Faculty at the Complutense University, Spain

Received: 18 october 2021

Revised: 15 january 2022

Accepted: 25 April 2022

Published: 20 july 2022

Abstract: Essay film is an under studied audiovisual form and its reception by Spanish audiences is even less well understood. This article shows the results of a research project on the perception and reception of contemporary Spanish essay film. Its aim is to determine how the essay film is considered by professionals and audiences, connecting the study of specific works with audience research and the contexts of production and distribution. A qualitative methodology is used by organizing four focus groups with different profiles: experts, essay film makers, current audience and potential audience. The results reveal a characterization of the essay film as a hybrid form, recognizable, but hard to define. This is a genre in which author subjectivity dominates to unfold a line of thought and its construction process. The audiovisual essay is understood as a low-cost artisanal production that offers a high degree of creative freedom and independence. There are some recognized limitations in its distribution process, although it finds alternative channels in festivals, museums, cultural centers, and online platforms. In the case of the essay film, traditional exhibition is replaced by the cultural event. Essay filmgoers are an educated, minority, and endogamous audience that enjoys art and the air of distinction it provides.

Keywords: Cinema; Video; Audiovisual Art; Audiovisual Culture; Film Production; Audiences.

Resumen: El ensayo es una forma audiovisual no suficientemente estudiada y su recepción por parte de los públicos españoles es aún menos conocida. El presente artículo muestra los resultados de un proyecto de investigación sobre la percepción y recepción del ensayo audiovisual español contemporáneo cuyo objetivo es determinar qué espacio ocupa el ensayo audiovisual en la consideración de profesionales y espectadores relacionando la investigación de obras específicas con la investigación de las audiencias y los contextos de producción y distribución. Se utiliza una metodología cualitativa mediante la organización de cuatro grupos de discusión con distintos perfiles: expertos, directores de ensayo audiovisual, público actual y público potencial. La investigación desvela la caracterización del ensayo audiovisual como una forma híbrida, reconocible, pero de difícil definición. En ella predomina la subjetividad de un autor que despliega una línea de pensamiento y su propio proceso de construcción. El ensayo audiovisual se describe como una producción artesanal, de bajo coste y que ofrece un alto grado de libertad creativa e independencia. Se detectan limitaciones en su proceso de distribución, si bien encuentra canales alternativos en festivales, museos, centros culturales y plataformas en la red. Con el ensayo la exhibición tradicional es sustituida por el evento cultural. Sus espectadores configuran una audiencia culta, minoritaria y endogámica que disfruta del arte y que encuentra en ello un elemento de distinción.

Palabras clave: Cine; vídeo; arte audiovisual; cultura audiovisual; producción fílmica; audiencias.

Resumo: O ensaio é uma forma audiovisual pouco estudada e a sua acolhida pelo público espanhol é ainda menos conhecida. Este artigo apresenta os resultados de um projeto de pesquisa sobre a percepção e recepção do ensaio audiovisual espanhol contemporâneo. O objetivo é determinar o espaço que o ensaio ocupa na consideração de profissionais e espectadores, relacionando a investigação de obras específicas com os estudos sobre públicos nos contextos de produção e distribuição. Utiliza-se uma metodologia qualitativa que parte da organização de quatro grupos de discussão com diferentes perfis: especialistas, diretores de ensaios audiovisuais, público atual e público potencial. A pesquisa revela a caracterização do ensaio audiovisual como uma forma híbrida, reconhecível, mas de difícil definição. Nela, predomina subjetividade dos autores que apresentam uma linha de pensamento e seus próprios processos de construção. O ensaio audiovisual é descrito como uma produção artesanal de baixos custos que oferece um alto grau de liberdade criativa e independência. Detecta-se limitações no seu processo de distribuição, embora encontre canais alternativos em festivais, museus, centros culturais e plataformas online. Com o ensaio, a apresentação tradicional é substituída pelo evento cultural. Seus espectadores constituem um público culto, minoritário e endógamo, que aprecia a arte e encontra nela um elemento de distinção.

Palavras-chave: Cinema; vídeo; arte audiovisual; cultura audiovisual; produção cinematográfica; público.

1. Introduction

The audio-visual essay is a genre that articulates a line of thought the development of which occurs simultaneously with that of the rhetorical device sustaining it (Mínguez, 2012). The origins of the essay film can be found in both literature and philosophy (Alter, 2018) and demonstrate the human ability to present experiences and an understanding of reality from a perspective that is at once reflective and emotional. In the 1940’s the concept of the caméra-stylo (camera-pen) anticipated a form of cinema where the author is not necessarily the narrator with parallels in various literary forms (Astruc, 1948). Not long afterwards, the term essay started to be used in association with a film by Chris Marker (Alter, 2006; Bazin, 2017; Tracy, 2013).

The audio-visual essay is a complex object, and it resists definition because it is the product of integrating several forms (Mínguez, 2019). In fact, it is a common assumption that the audio-visual essay does not itself constitute a genre rather it is a cinematographic form lacking any specific limitations (Català, 2014 y 2005) which is situated beyond any formal, conceptual, or social restrictions. It is transgressive in that it questions not only the position of the author, but also that of the viewer and indeed, that of the medium itself (Alter, 1996).

At the heart of the audio-visual essay is thought and from this, springs its analytical character, a certain didacticism (Català, 2000), and a tendency to ‘logocentrism’ (Lopate, 1992; Rascaroli, 2019), although some authors downplay the importance of words and the voice-over (Harvey, 2012). The literary essay is already seen to deal with a-systematic (Adorno, 2017) or ‘a-methodological’ (Arenas, 1997) thought; as something which goes beyond the traditional antagonism between art and science and precisely because of this is able to produce an encounter between the intellectual and the emotional (Rascaroli, 2009).Thought in the audio-visual essay often has an exploratory character, un-fettered, and sometimes accompanied by a certain level of self-consciousness or self-analysis (Mínguez and Manzano-Espinosa, 2020). As Marichal (1984) comments, referring specifically to the Hispanic audio-visual essay, one of the foundations of this art form is its chameleon-like adaptability.

Another important aspect of the essay film is subjectivity, either because the author’s viewpoint predominates or because the author’s gaze is directed inwards. Formats such as the diary-film, the travelogue, video-letters, or cinematographic self-portraiture, are ideal outlets for one of the most characteristic registers of the audio-visual essay: personal expression (Corrigan, 2011; Monterrubio, 2018; Rascaroli 2008) with a subjectivity often associated with digression, uncertainty, and fragmentation (García-Martínez, 2006; Weinrichter, 2007). The intersection between the audio-visual essay and subjectivity is also present in autobiography (Renov, 1989) indeed, the audio-visual essay has proved to be an effective tool for the construction of personal identity (Manzano, 2018), and as a result, on occasion, this form wonders into that most intimate manifestation, the epistolary essay film (Mínguez, 2021; Monterrubio, 2021). The audio-visual essay also takes on the character of a dialogue in the way that it interrogates the viewer, placing them in a discursive position necessarily provoking an active, creative response (Montero, 2012). Historically, the audio-visual essay tends to appear in periods of crisis with the direct intention of addressing such emergencies (Arquero & Deltell, 2017; Alter, 2018; Deltell, 2019).

Considering the process of reception in the audio-visual field, here, there are many questions that require study from multiple perspectives in order to answer certain basic points: Who sees what sorts of audio-visual content? And how and why? The answers to these questions force us to consider various psychological, technological, and phenomenological components of the viewing process; the construction of the viewer through the audio-visual text; audience composition and its socio-cultural characteristics; and the industrial, technological, and cultural determiners behind the production, circulation, and dissemination of the audio-visual content (Sánchez-Noriega, 2015).

The pioneering work of Hall (1973) and Morley (1974) concerned a theory of reception more or less oriented towards language and anthropology, however, the huge expansion of the televisual industry saw reception studies increasingly focus on fundamentally qualitative methods of audience assessment, even including the use of Big data (Claes, 2015). Over the last decade, there has been a tentative return of interest in ethnography (Palacio, 2007; Tufte, 2007) and more qualitative approaches, especially in studies concerning television (Chicharro, 2011; Lacalle, 2012).

Currently, there is a certain dichotomy in approaches to reception studies with respect to academic research versus that conducted by the media industry itself which still centres principally on quantitative audience indices (Quintas-Froufe & González-Neira, 2021). Concerning the object of our study, there are three main propositions which are as follows:

a) There is a need to re-connect reception studies with cultural studies giving qualitative approaches a more pre-eminent place as form of liberation and a way of returning power to the viewer. This proposition highlights the social necessity of critical thinking skills, that is, citizens should have sufficient interpretive and technological understanding to allow them to evaluate what they see on their screens (Hermes et al., 2013).

b) The majority of information concerning audience reception managed by the large media companies such as Netflix, Google and Facebook is not available to academics (their API keys and source code are not publicly accessible, in contrast to other companies such as Twitter), is essentially quantitative, and is oriented to maximising profits. This second proposition implies that, without undervaluing the quantitative element, academics should be prepared to redirect their media and audience research studies giving more emphasis to cultural and humanist approaches (Gray, 2017).

c) Traditionally, media producers and audiences have been conceived as separate entities reinforcing existing social and power relationships, however, nowadays, the ease of access to new technologies and dissemination networks means that every citizen is a potential media producer (Alter, 2007; Baraybar & Linares, 2016; Rascaroli, 2017), so making the producer-audience distinction rather more permeable and uncertain than before (Castells, 2011). The consequence of this third proposition is that studies concerning audience and production not only share theoretical and methodological territory but also represent areas of analysis that should be considered jointly, in a complementary manner, so to improve our understanding of an ever more complex, interconnected reality (Mayer, 2016).

This study adopts the three propositions outlined above recognising that the audio-visual essay represents a high potential for creative thought, educational value and innovation, and that, in addition, audience reception of this art form has hitherto not been examined. The object of the present work is to study the reception of the contemporary Spanish audio-visual essay, and is framed within a wider project looking at audio-visual production that has been ongoing for several years. Our purpose is to determine the place of audio-visual essay in the minds of media professionals and viewers and, to verify whether these two groups use particular interpretive codes to understand this audio-visual modality. Specifically, this study attempts to relate research concerning particular works with research into audiences, as well as production and distribution contexts. We wish to underline that this is not a study of audience media use, but rather an examination of Spanish audio-visual essay reception where reception is used in the widest sense as a term to denote the set of perceptions about the audio-visual essay formed by the various actors who intervene at every stage in their life cycle: from conception to consumption. The novelty and relevance of this work lie precisely here, that is, rather than taking our point of departure from researcher speculation, as is commonly the case in studies of audio-visual essay, we wish to address directly the perceptions concerning audio-visual essay among those who create and consume this art form.

2. Materials and method

From our analysis of the existing academic literature, the objective of this investigation is to obtain information about the general perceptions held by our participants regarding the audio-visual essay as well as interrogating their interpretations of particular essay films. To this end, we will use focus groups, a qualitative technique widely used in other fields of sociology and market research. The focus group was analysed in detail by Krueger (1991) and has been defined as an analytic device whose production process places different narratives on a collision course and whose product is the revelation of how this collision (discussion) has affected personal narratives (persuasion) and group narratives (consensus) (Ibáñez, 1992). The focus group technique is recognised as having a twofold value: firstly, its potential to cause the emergence of new ideas and concepts which are largely inaccessible to quantitative methods (Callejo, 2001); and secondly, its cost, which is generally far lower than that involved in many other techniques (López-Francés, 2010).

Added to this are two further important considerations: the range of opinions and points of view expressible and sustainable in a given focus group is not infinite, but limited, and the distribution of opinions is not random but reproduces the existing structures of social differentiation among different segments and classes within the population. The former gives rise to what might be termed the “discussion closure principle” according to which once the entire set of distinct opinions on a particular topic has been expressed, discussion closes in on itself because saying anything further would be redundant thus completing the social construction of the topic under discussion. The latter has generated the “theory of structural branching in social discourse” which concerns the adequate representation of all points of view during the dynamic exchange of opinions based on the fact that in any society and within any specific social group there is a range of possible opinions that might be expressed on a given topic during the course of a discussion (Báez, 2009).

Three supplementary methodological safeguards further support the scientific rigour of our data:

  1. - The sample population for our focus group is representative of the social discourse concerning the issue under investigation: demonstrating the different points of view and exchange logics.

  2. - The data set gathered guarantees, on one hand, the principle of redundancy (no new information is introduced that opens new avenues of meaning, rather all lines of discussion are self-closing); and, on the other, the principle of categorical closure (the distinct fields of meaning are integrated into a matrix of meaning that renders comprehensible the reality under investigation and explains any differences that appear even permitting a coherent interpretation of new information).

  3. - The analytic model used is tried and tested enabling the structuring and development of the process required to construct the reality under study from first experience of the phenomenon to its social reconstruction (Báez, 2009).

With respect to the specific use of focus groups in our investigation, we selected four groups each with a distinct profile (the expert group, the essay film maker group, the current audience group, the potential audience group) with each comprising between seven and eight participants. All the focus groups were two hours long and were convened in Madrid. Discussion sessions were coordinated by Grupo Análisis e Investigación, a specialist market research company and took place at their corporate headquarters.

The main criterion in the composition of our focus groups was to ensure the appropriate degree of representativity and diversity to enable the collection and organisation of the different viewpoints expressed by each actor intervening in the phenomenon under investigation. The expert group included academics who had studied audio-visual essays, as well as producers, distributors, and programme schedulers all of whom had wide experience with this genre. The essay film maker group contained people who had directed at least two audio-visual essays. Care was taken to ensure the inclusion of both emergent authors as well as those who were more established. A further important criterion in selecting the essay film maker group was that it should contain directors of some of the essay films viewed by our audience groups. This would make it possible to contrast the opinions of creators directly with the views of their audiences concerning specific aspects of the films viewed. In this way, our essay film maker group included the directors of four out of the five essay films viewed by the audience groups.

With the objective of widening the diversity and range of available audience opinions we configured two audience focus groups. The first of these groups comprised the current audience for essay films, that is, viewers who know the genre and are either frequent or occasional viewers of this type of film. The second group comprised the genre’s potential audience: viewers who consumed audio-visual products to varying degrees but didn’t identify essay films as a particular genre they watched. This second group allowed us to access more spontaneous or candid opinions about the phenomenon studied. As well as the considerations outlined above, the recruitment process also took into account diversity and balance in terms of participant age and gender. Participants were recruited with the assistance of Grupo Análisis e Investigación; the company hold a A50/000005 certificate and work according to ISO 20252 requirements, the company also follows the ANEIMO system for Recruitment Quality (SACC).

Each of our groups was presented with a series of questions or key discussion points concerning the nomenclature, definition, and characteristics of audio-visual essay film. All discussion sessions were presided over by a moderator who directed the conversation according to previously structured questions while leaving space for un-planned topics that might appear spontaneously in the discussion. In the expert and film maker groups, discussions went into great depth concerning the topics of film essay production and distribution. The two audience groups, in contrast, focussed less on these themes instead, spending time viewing a selection of audio-visual pieces that could be categorised as essay films. The selection included five works chosen on the basis of their relevance as examples of the Spanish audio-visual essay and as representative of the genre’s diversity. The total running time of the film selection was 25 minutes thus it could be viewed during the focus group and so form the basis for the subsequent discussion session. The following works were included: Límites 1ª persona (First person limits by Elías León Siminiani, 2009), Pal.Altoviti (Palazo Altoviti by Samuel Alarcón and Bárbara Fluxa, 2007), Felices Fiestas (Happy Holidays by Víctor Moreno, 2008), Holy Thriller (María Cañas, 2011), Los muertos (un sondeo demoscópico) (The dead: an opinion poll by Terrorismo de Autor, 2016).

With respect to the selection of the pieces for viewing, it was necessary that the whole film selection could be viewed during a single session to ensure that the works were fresh in the memories of our participants and that all participants had the same viewing experience. The selected pieces had to meet the definition of audio-visual essay, be representative of the diversity of this genre and be of short duration. To fulfil the first condition, besides the consensus reached by the research team, it should be noted that four of the five films viewed are included in the audio-visual essay catalogue published by the Cervantes Institute ( Concerning the second condition, the selected films represent five of the seven essayistic modes identified by Isleny Cruz (2019) demonstrating the sample’s diversity in form and theme. Finally, regarding the short length of the pieces viewed, the research team weighed up whether the key aspects of the audio-visual essay could be developed in such short films or whether, in fact, the audio-visual essay is essentially a feature length form. Discussions prior to the investigation concluded that the fundamental characteristics of an audio-visual essay can be found in short films just as much as in their longer counterparts. This opinion is confirmed by the work of Mínguez and Manzano-Espinosa (2020), who, in a study of 200 audio-visual essays produced in Spain, established that the most common format for these films is the short (46%) with feature-length (40.5%) and medium-length (13.5%) films being far less frequent. The prevalence of the short in essay film making is confirmed by other authors (Arthur, 2003) and this trend holds for younger essayists as much as for more experienced essay film makers. It is due partly to economic reasons but also reflects aesthetic concerns relating to the essence of the essay form and the creative liberty of essayists which also involves the use of new distribution channels (Deltell, 2020).

In terms of the themes and modalities of the selected films, here, we feel that they cover a representative sample of the questions that essayists and their audiences find interesting in the current Spanish context. Límites 1ª persona belongs to the self-referential style of audio-visual essay-making and uses voice-over in a way that makes it more than a simple autobiographic tool. Based on video recordings made during a journey to the desert, the director, Siminiani reflects about his failed love life. The film constructs a meaningful search through the use of metalanguage, thinking about the images, indeed thinking with them, as part of the plot, while at the same time images are manipulated, commented on, or transformed throughout the montage. Pal.Altoviti ´07 opens with a static shot of a surface that, as is gradually revealed, lies underwater; with its disturbing soundtrack, this film presents us with a play of abstractions in which art and water take the leading roles. Little by little we come to identify the surfaces we are shown as paintings of mythological scenes located inside a room flooded many years ago. The film reflects on the potential for contemporary culture to integrate the sacred and the profane, the local and the global, but also, Pal. Altoviti ‘07 underlies a certain inclination to, or substrate of melodrama found in some areas of Spanish culture. This reflection on the cyclical nature of time and entombed memory constitutes a prime example of the video-essay style. Felices Fiestas takes a testimonial approach reflecting on the experiences of an African immigrant arriving in Tenerife. The film unfolds with the immigrant telling his life’s adventures while at the same time we are shown images of a shopping centre packed with people making purchases in a display of frenetic consumerism. The final scene of this piece connects directly to the chosen title, giving the story a certain circularity. Holy Thriller is a ‘cut and paste’ essay. It combines archive images showing the fervour of Easter week against a backing track of music by a Michael Jackson cover band. Images and sound are used to compose a commentary about the potential for contemporary culture to combine the sacred and the profane, the local and the global. In addition, the combination of pop-hysteria with the solemn manifestations of Catholic religious fervour hints at a melodramatic tendency in Spanish culture. The film Los muertos (un sondeo demoscópico) falls into the category of creative documentary. Based on observations of a manipulated reality, its images of a cemetery where certain well known political figures are buried, construct an ironic allegory about the hypothetical disappearance of the old political order.

After viewing the selected materials, participants in our audience groups proceeded to a dynamic sequence in which they exchanged views on their spontaneous response to the recently viewed films; what they considered to be the key points in terms of content and form, facets, and characteristics that defined the set of films viewed as a distinct audio-visual category; how they would categorize the recently viewed films within the current audio-visual offer.

After establishing a shared definition of the audio-visual essay, participants were asked to consider the current profile of this genre in their own patterns of cultural consumption and in that of the people they knew. Questions considered related to the recollection of audio-visual essay titles and authors; the role of the audio-visual essay in participants’ own media consumption and in that of the public in general, as well as the mode of consumption; the characteristics of the audio-visual essay’s target audience and potential ways to improve audio-visual essay content, format, and dissemination.

With regards to reception as a process, we have used a classic behavioural model from social psychology that interprets human behaviour in terms of three dimensions. The first of these dimensions is cognitive and, in this context, it refers to elements of reception concerning the perceptions a person has about audio-visual essays including: what name could be given to this type of film? How would such films be characterised? How would they be defined and identified? The second dimension concerns emotional response, specifically the spontaneous reactions evoked by a particular film. This encompasses reactions of embracing or rejecting, likes and dislikes, the feelings that are provoked and the emotional substrate underpinning all this. Finally, the third dimension is functional, and, in our context, concerns the production modes that define the audio-visual essay and the ways in which people come into contact or encounter these films. This element includes production systems, distribution and marketing channels, and the characteristics or classification of the target audience, both current and potential.

When coding our results, we considered both the content and the discursive structures contained in the opinions expressed by our participants.

The data supporting the findings of this research is not publicly available as this would compromise data protection considerations, particularly with respect to the privacy of our focus group participants.

3. Results

Our first result, which is consistent across all our focus groups, concerns the ‘chameleon-like character’ of the audio-visual essay and the complexity of finding a definition for the films in this genre. Both the film maker and expert groups as well as the actual and potential audience groups expressed the opinion that it was difficult to conceptualise the audio-visual essay. In this way, one participant in the first instance states that the term ‘audio-visual essay’ is a recent coinage designating “a very specific type of thing, although the cinematic essay form is much older.” Later, in the dynamic discussion that followed concerning the problem of defining this media form, they agreed with the idea that the audio-visual essay shares a space with other audio-visual forms: creative documentary, videoart, experimental video. This is how another participant explains:

“The first person to talk about essay films was Bazin in the 1940’s, even before that, in the thirties Hans Richter had also done so, and it was a different thing, it was a type of non-fiction film, with an experimental format… That’s the essay film, cinematic essay, essayistic films. They’re part of a trend belonging in creative territory, generating work along the lines of Godard, Marker, etc. and have the status of works of art based on an interpretation. And then another trend is the video-essay or audio-visual essay.” (Participant 7E).

The complexity of its conceptualisation, however, did not impede any of those in the expert and film maker groups or indeed a significant portion of the audience groups from understanding what constituted an audio-visual essay nor from recognising such films. The issue is more one of definition, distilling the essence of this form, rather than one of recognition. Although not observed to such an extent, this sort of difficulty has been reported before: in a study from the 1980’s concerning the Hollywood’s classic cinematic genres (Altman, 1985) and with modern televisual and digital genres (Creeber, 2013). As a result, the audio-visual essay while not easy to define is well recognised.

A further clear distinction emerged between audience groups in terms of reception, in that the current and more experienced audience had a greater tendency to categorise and even to create more subdivisions between types of audio-visual essay. This is how one participant explains it:

“If I had to put it somewhere it would be like videoart, and then within videoart, in fiction. Videoart can go more towards what you’d call installation, a performance, and in the audio-visual essay there is a component of personal cinema, its subjective and that’s something videoart has too but perhaps that distances it from the more artistic, museum style impenetrability.” (Participant 2P).

If our first result is that audio-visual essay is difficult to define, the second has a more subjective, personal, even perhaps, emotional character. Audio-visual essays emerge largely from emotions, but in addition, these emotions are precisely how their directors connect with their audiences: “What’s good about them is the element of someone’s personal view-point that we can connect with, part of a personal reality and personal experiences.” (Participant 4D).

According to our interviewees, the personal and emotional nature of the audio-visual essay should not be interpreted as a narrative strategy or plot-construction model. It is not about entertainment derived from the plot line under development, but rather it evolves from a profound thought process and, above all, from self-reflection. The audio-visual essay has “the status of an artwork by virtue its thought process” (Participant 1E). Furthermore, the audience groups, both potential and current, recognised how these films generated a reflective discourse or thought process in themselves as viewers. This was explained by one participant in the following way: “I think there is also reflection because it makes you think all the time. I see the thought processes of the author.” (Participant 4P).

Thus, as indicated by our participants, the thought process of the audio-visual essay constitutes a new audio-visual form that does not rely on describing unfolding events, but rather involves the communication of ideas and thoughts. One of the participants from the film maker group even went as far as to say that the essay film prioritises words over images:

“So, the cinema is traditionally conceived mostly to narrate, to tell a story, and then suddenly all sorts of possibilities open up that have to do with cinematic approaches involving thought and this is directly linked to putting greater value on text and words rather than images. Text and words have traditionally always been somewhat disparaged throughout the history of cinema. And the essay comes out of a type of sub-genre saying: its not true that images are worth more than a thousand words. Its also true that one word is worth more than a thousand images.” (Participant 2D).

Moreover, the reflective nature of these films is accompanied by an experimental approach that not only manifests in terms of form by also ethically. The audio-visual essayist expresses their opinions from a perspective of societal commitment. Here is how one of our participants described the functions that, in their opinion, the essay can accomplish: “Firstly it gives a voice to more voices, to popular resistance against official narratives. And secondly, its fundamentally about positioning. Moral and ethical positioning and that really affects me… Taking a stand and a certain ethical position. A certain set of values.” (Participant 3D).

“The strongest motivation is the desire to express, think, generate discussion… above all a desire to express. With time the project gained structure and we gained confidence and that enabled us to continue experimenting, which is another of the motives that’s helped us… and its very related to games, playfulness, and eclecticism.” (Participant 6D).

This playfulness and creativity are possible in the modern audio-visual essay largely due to digitisation which has changed production and viewing systems. A director can now make films with minimal resources, available to any member of the public, which is something unimaginable twenty years ago. Indeed, the film makers we interviewed stated that digital technology has produced an exponential increase in production options, putting the history of cinema in the hands of its creators enabling them to take and manipulate images from previous films easily and quickly.

In addition, from the perspective of viewing or showing films, technological change has been huge. The issue is the generation of ‘directors without a cinema,’ that is, directors and creators who know that their work has little chance of being shown in a commercial cinema due to the fact that it has a minimal audience, smaller even than that for documentary film or independent fiction film. One film-exhibitor who took part in a focus group explained that because the forms and themes of the audio-visual essay are difficult for audiences, the majority of the public will never come to showing of this type of film: “It’s form and contents are a minority interest and that means the vast majority are not prepared to go and see it. Because normally, the public in general… want to see other types of content…” (Participant 7E). It was also mentioned that the audio-visual essay is somehow trapped due to what might be called author-viewer ‘inbreeding’: the audience for this type of film is composed largely of directors, essayists, or authors of other forms of cinema.

The select, minority character of audio-visual essays is also behind some of the rejection of this form by potential audiences. Thus, one of our focus group participants maintained that the films they had seen were not in fact works of cinema but instead experimental pieces of no interest. After viewing the five films used in this study, this participant said: “It wasn’t proper cinema, it was more like uninteresting bits of experimentation” (Participant 6P).

As a result, both film makers and exhibitors and indeed the actual audience group recognised that the only means to show these films was through the organisation of events. Traditional showings are being substituted by specialist events organised for festivals, meetings, workshops, university seminars, or at museums. This means that while the majority of audio-visual essays will never be shown via traditional commercial avenues, events and shows involving works of film-art are increasing in number all the time. The apparent contradiction between the ending of traditional showings and the birth of a new community led cinema is reflected in the large number of showings and audio-visual installations now seen in museums or at festivals. This is how one director put it: “There are more festivals and every year more people go to these festivals; every year they beat their record for viewer numbers, from Sitges, to Filmadrid, any festival, numbers increase year on year” (Participant 5D).

4. Discussion and conclusions

The results of our qualitative study suggest that it would be correct to say that the audio-visual essay is perceived as filling a minority niche in the evolution of visual culture; a new culture, it is supported by digitisation and accessibility to the means of producing and disseminating the finished work. This audio-visual form finds its place somewhere between cinema and contemporary art, between the film show and the cultural event. Thus, these films are seen as something hybrid, that crosses frontiers, and which the participants of this investigation referred to using a variety of terms reflecting the heterogeneity of the phenomenon: audio-visual essay; essay film; video-essay; or video-art.

There was some consensus among our participants to the effect that author subjectivity is the principal characteristic determining perceptions about the audio-visual essay. They also agreed that this feature largely determines the reception of these films among their target audience, both film professionals and their habitual or occasional viewers. This subjectivity manifests either in the first person or via other, assumed identities.

Thus, the audio-visual essay responds to the expressive needs of the author and is a discursive form that enables the unfolding of thoughts and its own process of construction; thoughts made actions through images and sound to express a personal point of view. This type of film should be understood as a form of cinema that thinks and makes others think; filmmaking where the treatment of form and content work together such that the two become indistinguishable. The essay is recognised as an audio-visual form that sits with a certain indifferentiation between fiction and non-fiction, a perception more commonly expressed by the expert and film maker groups with the audience groups seeing it more aligned with non-fiction. The absence of a clear assignment to one category or the other is undoubtedly behind the difficulty in defining and conceptualising audio-visual essays.

The analysis of the production formats for this type of cinema highlights the set of conditions that continue to limit the reception of audio-visual essays to a very narrow, minority audience. The audio-visual essay is still firmly associated with a production mode defined by three fundamental variables: artisan (do-it-yourself), low cost, and a free, independent working environment.

There is agreement on the point that insufficient channels exist for the marketing or funding of this type of audio-visual product, despite the fact that there are now several new distribution avenues most notably in the form of an expansion in festivals and cinema showings (mostly online), the art circuit (museums and cultural centres), and a small number of digital platforms. The film maker group formed a consensus that technological development has contributed to providing the necessary accessibility and portability to enable new pathways for making and distributing alternative audio-visual products such as the essay. For these authors, economic variables were not an issue in the majority of cases; more important was vocation, the desire to express oneself and provoke thought, implicitly ruling out any possibility of commercial cinema distribution. The exhibition and marketing loop for this type of audio-visual form is displaced from commercial cinemas with these films finding a home as events. There is a tendency to give the showing of these films a sense of occasion giving particular significance to the presence of the author and the holding of colloquia at showings.

With regard to characterising the target audience, discussion in our focus groups coalesced around three significant areas: the audience is an unconventional minority; it is ‘inbred,’ or endogamous, comprising individuals who meet and are recognised in particular cultural spheres; and consumption of the medium is linked to a circle of people with particular common interests.

In trying to identify the audiences for audio-visual essay, our participants made reference to a circle formed by those professionally related to the audio-visual essay scene, to festival goers, and a sector of the public familiar with contemporary art. All these groups share certain characteristics: they are cinema-lovers who are interested in cinema history, in the current trends in audio-visual creation, or in ‘alternative cinemas,’ and who know how to appreciate the intimate experience offered by the essay. At the same time, this audience is cultured, they read, enjoy art and the air of distinction it provides.

To explain why the audio-visual essay remains limited to this endogamous, minority, elitist niche, the film-professionals in our focus groups indicated that the medium is condemned by its virtues. Some considered that the future of this sort of film lay in documentary making as it is more attractive to those wishing to make non-fiction however, it would be true to say it is a very minority interest. The difficulty in defining the audio-visual essay is part of its attraction, but also limits its appeal because it moves in such a vague territory where it is difficult to overcome invisibility. According to our participants, the audio-visual essay stimulates thought and a dialogue with viewer, but this collides with the escapist, passive enjoyment favoured in the modern world.

Author Contributions

Norberto Mínguez-Arranz: Conceptualization, Methodology, Investigation, Funding acquisition and Supervision. Jorge Clemente-Mediavilla: Conceptualization, Methodology, Investigation, Formal Analysis and Validation. Luis Deltell-Escolar: Conceptualization, Methodology, Investigation, Visualization and Writing – original draft. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript. Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest.


The present work forms part of the research project entitled: The essay in contemporary Spanish audio-visual media (Ref. CSO2015-66749-P), funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competition and the European Fund for Regional Development within the State Programme for Fostering Excellence in Scientific and Technology Research.


We would like to express our gratitude to our many collaborators who shared with us some of their time and knowledge and accepted our invitation to participate in the focus groups that were the foundations of this research work.


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Author notes

* Professor of Audio-visual communication, Department of Applied Communication Science in the Information Science Faculty at the Complutense University, Madrid (UCM), Spain

** University professor, Department of Applied Communication Science in the Information Science Faculty at the Complutense University, Madrid (UCM), Spain

*** University professor, Department of Applied Communication Science in the Information Science Faculty at the Complutense University, Madrid (UCM), Spain

Additional information

Translation to English : Hebe Powell

To cite this article : Mínguez-Arranz, Norberto; Clemente-Mediavilla, Jorge; & Deltell-Escolar, Luis. (2022). Reception of Contemporary Spanish Essay Film. ICONO 14 Scientific Journal of Communication and Emerging Technologies, 20(1).

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ICONO 14, Revista de comunicación y tecnologías emergentes

ISSN: 1697-8293

Vol. 20

Num. 1

Año. 2022

Reception of Contemporary Spanish Essay Film

Norberto Mínguez-Arranz 1, Jorge Clemente-Mediavilla 1, Luis Deltell-Escolar 1