What's an Experimental Film? / by Eugene Sun Park

Throughout the production process of Self-Deportation, I've often described the genre as experimental. Several people have asked me flat-out, "What's an 'experimental film'?" Others, through their various comments and questions, have revealed that they, too, do not really know what an experimental film is.

I'm not a film scholar or professor, so I'm probably not the best person to explain what an experimental film is. But my working definition may be helpful to others, so here it is. It's actually a quote from a film instructor I had a few years ago:

An experimental film is any film that experiments with some aspect of the filmmaking process -- e.g., editing of visuals and/or audio, filming techniques, and even the mode of presentation.

He added something else that I think is useful to bear in mind. Since experimental films are trying out something new and untested, they might fail. Experiments, by their very nature, are not guaranteed to succeed. As my instructor put it, a good experimental film can also be a very bad movie.

To help clarify what an experimental film is, it might also be helpful to say what an experimental film is not. An experimental film is not (just):

  • a film that is weird
  • a film that has very stylized editing
  • a film without a story
  • a film that is incoherent
  • a film that is fantastical or surreal

Of course, an experimental could be some or all of these things. There are certainly many incoherent experimental films! But the above characteristics alone do not make a film experimental. In other words, these characteristics are neither necessary nor sufficient for a film to qualify as experimental. There are many stylized, weird, incoherent films that are not experimental at all.

So, returning to Self-Deportation, I have vacillated between calling it an experimental film or just calling it bizarre/surrealist. These are not the same thing. Either way, one thing is clear as we work through the editing phase of this production -- the "story" of Self-Deportation is not going to be presented in a conventional manner, where narrative information is spoon-fed to the viewer. Whether this constitutes true experimentation still remains to be seen.