Thomas Schärer, what is an experimental film?

“Experimental film” is a (controversial) umbrella term for films that negate or question the conventions of feature films or documentaries. As a rule, experimental films are not coherent narratives. Instead, they address perception, the (moving) image, the medium, and the related dispositifs and techniques. Many films experiment with structure and form, work associatively, and are comparable to poetry — as against prose. The designations assigned to such films (avantgarde, underground, structural, or abstract) are highly diverse, as are the currents and tendencies within experimental filmmaking. Early European avantgardist films (dating to the 1920s and 30s) and the underground films of the 1960s often transgress boundaries and break taboos (sexuality, violence, religion). So-called “Expanded cinema” sought to extend the conventions of the cinematic dispositif and involved multi-projector installations and performance. Structural films often worked with the materiality of the medium (celluloid, video tape) or used mechanical and chemical processes to edit self-exposed material or found footage.

Experimental films flourished in the 1960s, when filmmakers previously working alone began forming (informal) groups and writing programmatic texts. One of the most influential currents (which were actually quite heterogeneous) to emerge at the time was the widely acclaimed New American Cinema. From 1949 to 1974, an important meeting point for experimental filmmakers was Exprmntl, a festival held at irregular intervals in Brussels and Knokke-le-Zoute.

François Bovier, Balthasar Lovay et al. (Eds.), Film Implosion! Experimental Cinema in Switzerland, 2nd edition, Revolver Publishing, Berlin 2017. Includes contributions by Thomas Schärer, Fred Truniger, and others.
Thomas Schärer (thomas.schaerer@zhdk.ch) teaches and researches film at ZHdK. His previous research includes “Swiss Film Experiments.”
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