Giving a hard-and-fast definition of the essay film is difficult if not impossible. Its characteristics, boundaries and approaches are vague at best. It is the audiovisual equivalent of the written essay: a scholarly piece of writing that focuses in a sustained and systematic way on a certain subject, and that can also incorporate the author’s personal stances into an otherwise objective and factual discussion.
The essay film is a hybrid form. It straddles the lines between fiction and documentary, between personal investigation and objective argumentation. In an essay film, the maker develops an idea or theme (not a storyline).
The video essay is akin to the essay film. But the essay film’s subject matter is not limited to the cinematic: it can address just about anything.
Take a look at some examples of essay films from our best practices section.
In a video he made for Fandor, Kevin B. Lee examines the Elements of the Essay Film.
In his research note Film criticism, film scholarship and the video essay, Andrew Mcwhirter makes very interesting observations about both the essay film and the video essay, about their affinities and shared lineage.