One of the most popular genres within nonfiction cinema today is the so-called “essay film.” These audiovisual productions are literary or philosophical meditations on a variety of topics, including self-reflective explorations on the nature of image- and sound-making, social critiques and histories, and introspective investigations plumbing the depths of human nature. As varied as the form and topics of these films are, there is common agreement on their definition. The essay film has generally been characterized as an in-between genre that moves freely from fiction to nonfiction, part documentary, part fantasy, made for television viewing and for gallery or museum exhibition. One of the characteristics of the essay film is that it is not predictable, since it does not follow the conventional rules. Moreover, essay films are both informed by and produce theory. To that extent, they constitute part of a body of experimental films, which Edward S. Small identifies as a genre and refers to as “direct theory.”
The contemporary essay film is international, and many of its producers have a transnational or diasporic identity. At the same time, however, there are national variations of the essay film. When one traces a history of the genre, it is evident that several national cinemas have a clearly developed brand of this hybrid form that identifies them as being part of a larger national cinematic tradition. Thus there are the French, British, Italian, North American, Latin American, and German essay films.