What are Experimental Films

What Are Experimental Films? History, Example, And Movements

Being a student and a devotee of cinema, you must have come across the term “experimental films” or “Avante Garde”. You must have noticed that the works of certain directors are a little, well, a little more than a little different, from the mainstream structure of cinema that we know today.

When you are watching films of directors like Gasper Noe or David Lynch, you must notice how they are different from the conventional modes and standards of filmmaking. But if you look closely, they might come off to you as a little odd at first, but underneath you’ll find a particular ideology and message. 

Since the invention of the camera, it has undergone several experiments. Along with experimental ideologies to capture an image perfectly, the concept of a series of moving pictures was developed. Hence, it can be considered that cinema was born out of experiments as well. 

But how is an experimental film different from all other films whose roots were formed out of experiments as well? Although experimental films cannot really be categorized as a genre of film, it is definitely a particular style and process of filmmaking with an inherent motive.

What is Experimental Film?

To begin with, there is no solid definition to explain what is an experimental film. The word Avant-Garde is a military term that means foreguard. In the context of cinema, Avant-Garde is used to refer to a particular aesthetic set of films or style of filmmaking that started immediately after the first world war.

Experimental or Avant-Garde cinema was made with an approach to defy and reject the conventional standards of filmmaking and ridicule the plot and character set of mainstream cinema.

The purpose of experimental cinema was to go beyond the limits of the orthodox standards of narrative filmmaking and bring out cinema as a unique art form itself, instead of being just a mere adaptation of other art forms like literature, paintings, music, etc.

Experimental filmmakers changed the perspective of filmmaking as they challenged the middle-class notions of mainstream narrative films and promoted the concept that there are limitless ways to create art through cinema and not just the one traditional way of filmmaking.

The theoretical approach of traditional cinema addressed the naturalist tendencies of representations, yet, the Avant-Garde filmmakers wanted to represent cinema on a more psychoanalytical level.

The motive behind making an experimental film is hard to generate revenue, instead, represents the artist’s personal vision and while most of these films are underground and independent, they have an inherent motive to make the audience view the world from a different perspective.

You might notice that most experimental films are odd and abstract in their own sense, but that doesn’t mean the artist can arrange any form of abstractionism in their film to make it a part of experimentation in cinema. However abstract or odd they might seem, these films always have a meaningful perspective hidden underneath, mostly the artist’s personal outlook on a particular subject.

The experimental films generally follow certain characteristics such as:

  • These films generally tend to be low-budget. Mostly these are independent or underground and mostly the artists use their own money.
  • Experimental films typically reject the linear narrative structures of other films and also do not generally focus on particular narration or storytelling
  • Generally, focus on abstractionism and surrealism.
  • Avant-Garde films are an extraction of the experimental art movements themselves and thus they respect other art, literature, politics, and culture.

A brief history of Experimental Films

After the invention of motion picture technology at the end of the 19th century, there was no immediate grammar established for cinema. If you watch the works of The Lumiere Brothers closely, they were mere representations of archives from the world around, a form of a documentary.

By the beginning of the 20th century, films had already taken a narrative form. Great filmmakers like Georges Méliès, with his early works like A Trip to the Moon, had already transformed cinema from a form of documentation to a medium of storytelling.

America soon adopted this format of cinema. D.W. Griffith with his debut, The Birth of a Nation had completely changed the Hollywood scenario. The epic silent feature was a milestone in film history and soon became Hollywood’s first-ever blockbuster hit. 

Hollywood had already started employing the Aristotelian structure of storytelling and with several experimental formats from the soviet productions, or the german expressionists a particular grammar for the language of cinema had developed. 

It was around the 20s when a small group of theorists like Louis Delluc, Germaine Dulac, and Jean Epstein, sought to create a different form of cinema, calling it Avant-Garde, which completely rejected the pre-established theories of mainstream narrative cinema.

These artists looked at the conventional cinema following the Aristotelian structure as bourgeois and argued how commercial and artificial the imitation was. They also sought the mainstream cinema to be limiting as the other filmmakers never thought about other variations and styles of representation. 

Soon a drive started to change the course of cinema and put a bar on middle-class values of traditional films and their storytelling structure. The horizons of cinema were explored and as more experimentations were introduced, the possibilities of cinema being represented as a unique art form increased.

Today, the Avant-Garde styles have become a bigger cultural aspect and somehow have their influence in every film, however small it may be. This global recognition also gave this art form the responsibility of addressing and representing several topics and issues generally avoided in conventional narrative cinema.

Reluctantly Queer is a 2016 short film directed by Akosua Adoma Owusu is a great experimental film example of recent times. The film shows the unsettling life of a young man in Ghana struggling to reconcile his love for his mother with his love for same-sex desire. This film thus eventually also addresses the increased tensions caused due to same-sex politics in Ghana.

Experimental Film Movements

Before studying some concrete Avante-Garde film movements, we must learn about subjective films.

Subjective Cinema: The term subjective generally defines a person’s particular opinion or perspective. So how does it apply in cinema?

A subjective film offers you, the audience, to see and experience whatever the character in the scene is actually looking at. Like in a POV or Point of View shot, instead of watching the character in the scene looking at something, you actually see his point of view.

Subjective Cinema, although not, particularly an Avante-Garde film movement, yet a very important style of filmmaking and adds up to several other styles of experimental filmmaking.

This form broke the conventional mode of representation of cinema.

From the ideology of keeping the camera at the character’s eye level to letting the audience view through his eyes, filmmakers often use other techniques as well, to make the audience experience what the character is experiencing on screen. 

The usage of shaky cam, pan follow, or often shifting to handheld, all of these camera techniques give you an insight and let you experience the narrative the way the character is experiencing.

Thus, to have a clearer idea, subjectivity in films is not just the representation of what the character sees, but an overall psychological representation of the character going through an event.

Let us take a look at a contemporary example of subjectivity in film. In the opening scene of Steven Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan, where Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is momentarily facing a bombshell shock. Speilberg really subjectifies the entire scene and all you can see are shaky shots of a shaken Captain Miller and the sound is morphed and dampened, momentarily, to make the audience experience a shell shock by themselves.

The concept of subjectivity rose the tendency to promote new possibilities of cinema and make it stand out as a different art form and 

Now coming to the major Avante Guard or experimental film movements,

The Cinéma Pur – Meaning “Pure Cinema”, this Avante-Garde movement originated in Paris in the 20s. This type of filmography mainly focused on the composition of the frames and the movements and rhythms inside the frame, without any particular focus on the narrative. 

Also referred to as absolute film or integral or true cinema, this type of non-narrative representation was mainly focused to create a cinematic experience in its purest form by giving importance to the distinctive qualities of a film like its visual composition.

The main motive behind pure or absolute cinema was to represent it as its own art form and not a mere adaptation of literature or paintings. Hence, pure cinema is devoid of narrative and characters and thus portrays an abstract story while focusing mainly on filmmaking techniques such as framing, several distortions of the image, several camera movements and so.

Meanwhile, the Dadaist ideology behind experimental filmmaking, with a similar non-narrative approach immersed as a part of the pure cinema movement itself. The dada ideology considered the mainstream narrative film to be a bourgeoise convention and thus their approach was to mock the Aristotelian notions of space and time in a story and ridicule the plot, setting, and character module of a typical genre film. 

During the 20s, the Soviet filmmakers had already introduced several filmmaking techniques, with the Kuleshov effect introduced by the great film theorist Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Eisenstein started using the soviet montage technique in his films like Battleship Potemkin (1925).  This technique used the juxtaposition of several shots to convey a particular message.

This approach to filmmaking that relied heavily on editing and assembling of the shots influenced several new kinds of documentary films as well, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. In his film, Vertov did not particularly focus on any narrative or a story, rather portrayed his film as a collective set of several shots without any particular story cut out of it. 

The Surrealist Movement – While the Soviet experimental filmmakers focused majorly on editing, the other side of Europe started representing the Freudian terms of the unconscious in their cinema. 

Surrealism was already a major art movement in the aftermath of the first world war and great artists like Andre Breton and Salvador Dali had revolutionized the whole art sector by providing a new light and a new context.

Surrealism started off as a cultural movement in which the artists depicted illogical scenes which were a representation of the unconscious mind. Soon this mode of representation was adopted in cinema. With its origins in the 20s in Paris, the surrealist movement soon became a modernist approach to cinema.

Sigmund Freud’s work “The Interpretation of Dreams” was a major influence on this movement. This type of experimental film used several illogical scenes and depictions of Freud’s dream symbolisms and thus challenged the conventional modes of representations.

These types of experimental films do not just retell the dreams or stories but replicate the entire process of the dreams of the unconscious through several filmmaking techniques and the usage of particular types of irrational or disturbing scenes, that may look absurd but have a deeper expression and meaning rooted into it.

 Although the 1928 experimental film, The Seashell and the Clergyman directed by Germaine Dulac is considered to be the first surrealist film, it was the 1929 Franco-Spanish film Un Chien Andalou, that set a standard and completely changed the course of surrealist films.

Un Chien Andalou, by Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, was made using the free-association technique pioneered by Andre Breton. This short experimental film was essentially silent, but later in 1960, music from Richard Wagners Tristan and Isolde was added.

The film starts off with the eye of a woman being cut with a razor, uses several other strong and aggressive imageries like the depiction of sadism, sexual harassment, fetishism, manipulating space and time by using several jump cuts, and also avoids the conventional narrative structure by randomizing the arrangement of scenes without any particular single storyline.

This film stands to be the most significant work in the entire movement and provokes a moral impact on the viewer. Even though this film shows scenes severely threatening women and punching them down to mere sexual beings, this actually helped the female surrealists to reclaim their position in the movement.

The surrealist tendency of filmmaking was soon adopted in Hollywood. One of the most influential American surrealist filmmakers, Maya Deren, although completely rejected the European standards of Surrealist filmmaking, her debut work Meshes of the Afternoon still remains one of the most significant and influential works in terms of American surrealism.

In her film, she rejects the general linear narrative approach of mainstream Hollywood films, and wanted to portray the inner realities of an individual, and represents the interpretation of the unconscious for a simple event and turns it into a severe emotional experience.

Here she repeats several images, disregards and mismatches the objective view of space and time in the film, and represents the traits of her own inner subconscious.

Futurism – The futurist is an Italian cultural movement that started around 1916, by the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who had also written the futurist manifesto. This movement mainly focused on the dynamism, speed, energy, and the technical progress of modern life, or rather, the machine age.

The futurists considered that the world was stuck as boring and old-fashioned, and wanted to look forward, primarily by celebrating innovation, dynamics, modernity, and speed.

This art movement soon coincided with cinema and became a form of experimental or Avante Garde films. Futurist cinema mainly represented a different perspective to represent a futuristic world. New innovations, development in technologies, and changed adaptations of speed and dynamics were the primary focus.

In cinema, futurism also had a shared influence with cubism where it showed a new powerful world adapting and coinciding with technology way ahead, yet mankind is still in power and controls the order of the new world harnessing the strength of modern innovations. Yet, on some grounds, futurist cinema also differs from cubism as it often shows the anticipated destruction brought by advanced technology.

Thaïs (1917) made by Anton Giulio is the only surviving 1910s futurist cinema, although only 35 minutes of it is available to us today in its 70 minutes entirety. 

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is an early German science film based on futurist principles, representing a stylized futuristic city and the conflict between the privileged and the poor with the existence of a culturally utopian society and a population of mistreated workers underneath.

Experimental Filmmakers over the years

experimental filmmakers
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Over the years, experimentalism has had a huge impact on the course of cinema, and this in turn has led to a massive influence on the socio-cultural acceptance of the approach to breaking the conventions of traditional cinema.

Over the years, the tradition of experimentation has passed on and the traits and styles, and methods of Avant-Garde filmmaking are still put to use by several filmmakers, even without the proper intention of making a complete experimental film.

How little it may be, experimentation remains a part of major revolutionary films. Taking the title sequence of Gasper Noe’s Enter the Void into consideration, the entire sequence is a unique form of experimentation itself.

The title sequence was made by the German experimental filmmaker Thorsten Fleisch, whose other influential works also include the 2007 short film Energie!, in which he transformed his fascination with Tesla coils into an art form itself. By exposing photographic paper to high voltage and then arranging these forms of “electrophotography” into a kind of flipbook. 

Filmmakers over the years have drawn experimentation in several forms to merge with their respective genres of narratives. For example, Richard Linklater uses experimentalism in his brilliant rotoscope animated film Waking Life.

The core aspects of the futurist movement form the structure for the science fiction films known to us today. Blade Runner (1989) is a great example that is mostly based on futurist Avant-Garde principles and has a great influence on early futurist films like Metropolis, showing a dystopian future with massive technological advancement and innovation taking over humanity.

Filmmakers often incorporate Avant-Garde styles to carve out horror narratives, so much so that experimental horror as a sub-genre stands out quite prominent. David Lynch is a mastermind to use these techniques, adding surrealism and abstractionism to give a new structure to the mode of storytelling and by the end of the film, leave us “Lynched”.

You’ll never be expected, how just a thriller story will turn into an odd, abstract, and dream-like mystique sequence, in Mulholland Drive. On the other hand, the entire narrative of Eraserhead is just weird in the conventions of traditional storytelling, yet the psychoanalytical approach to it is so powerful.

Rabbits (2002), is another such tool to make you “Lynched”, which is a series of eight short films made in a classic sitcom format of narrative, yet, there is a completely different and horrific tone to the entire film which is almost quite uncomfortable to be considered as a comic approach.


Although experimental films were never massive box office hits, rather, were never intended to, and were seen only by a small group of like-minded audiences. Yet, this did not limit the effect Avant-Garde movements have had on modern-day cinema. 

Several techniques used by Avant-Garde filmmakers have stood as an important development in many sectors of filmmaking like editing, visual effects, cinematography, storytelling or narrative structure, and the overall aesthetics and presentation. These all play a significant role in modern-day filmmaking. 

As I have discussed before how the experimentalism and Avant-Guarde movement today is playing an important role in addressing several topics which mostly fall apart from being addressed in traditional narrative films, people all over the world have started noticing the values of this movement.

The once small and limited community of this art form is growing every day and today there are several experimental film festivals solely dedicated to bringing together and promoting the Avante-Guarde art movement. Some of the popular ones are Chicago Underground Film Festival, New York Underground Film Festival, Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, PollyGrind Film Festival, and many more.

In the present time, experimental filmmaking is still a very prominent influence in the world of cinema and its styles and modes are adapted by filmmakers in several aspects since the horizons of cinema are yet too vast, new forms of experimentation will continue to be explored while the influence of films on our society and culture grows stronger.

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