Five memorable portrait documentaries you must see

July 14, 2017

Documentary films are probably the preeminent cinematic approach to film the human face. Its relationship with real life is just unavoidable; that’s why portrait documentaries make us celebrate humanity like no other form of art. GuideDoc brings you five great works that introduce us to the most memorable characters.

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Marcela by Helena Trstikova



Filmed for over 25 years, this documentary follows an ordinary woman in socialist Czechoslovakia and later Czech Republic in her attempt to live her life with dignity. Conceived at first as an episode of a TV series on the life of married couples, the film’s firsts black and white images shows a smiling bride beside a handsome man that soon becomes Marcela’s most present nightmare. The divorce would only be the first obstacle of her adulthood. The color of the digital era comes to show us Ivana and Tomas, Marcela's daughter and son. Later, there is an unexpected breakthrough: Marcela must face the death of one of her children. In what could be an unknown diamond of contemporary documentary, the film makes us question the very essence of life under the scrutiny of a memorable existence.


Santiago by Joao Moreira Salles



Brazilian director Joa Moreira Salles comes back to the editing room to confront the footage he had filmed thirteen years ago but never managed to complete: a film about the life of the butler of his family, the peculiar Santiago. The documentary takes this original failure to its favor and constructs a sort of mirror portrait, between the filmmaker and Santiago, a man of modest origins who dreams of being part of the French nobility, listens to Vivaldi all the time and has written nearly 25.000 unpublished papers about the European aristocracy.  The film is composed on the raw footage and dismissed takes from Salles’s filming in 1992, which has a taste of seeing a “Making Of”, a sort of cinematic fissure from which emerges an essay on the limits of artistic representation.


Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles 



The Maysles brothers get into the house of Edith Ewing Bouvier and her daugther Edith Bouvier – known as Big Edie and Little Edie respectively – to film the quotidian and chaotic coexistence between these two eccentric women. They had lived together in the house for over 50 years and at the time of the filming the house was in dangerous decay, deprived of running water, with an infestation of fleas and an there was an army of cats living in it. The Maysles read an article in the New York Magazine about these decadent women who where still surviving in those conditions and got permission to make a documentary about them. Premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976, this memorable documentary is filmed in the direct cinema style that characterizes the brothers. 


Outro by Svetlana Donskova



How to film the intimacy of an agony? The thin line about respect and victimization has been always the milestone of documentary filmmaking, the genre with the greatest commitment to real people and real situations. Filmmaker Julia Panasenko provides us with a beautiful example of sensitive storytelling when approaching Svetlana Donskova’s last days of life. Svetlana suffers from a disease that consumes her health progressively. The gravitating memory of an ex-couple and the intermittent presence of her mother, with whom she has a love-repulsion relationship, become a difficult dilema to handle in these grey days. Until the last frame, Outro makes us value every second we are alive and interrogate us as to why a journey towards death cannot be one of redemption and emotional renewal.


I Am Breathing by Emma Davie and Morag McKinnon



When is really a person dead? When he no longer breathes or when he cannot share his thoughts anymore? The life of Neil Platt illuminates this dilemma with a crude yet tenacious last will. Neil Platt knew that, according to genetics, he was likely to suffer from the same syndrome that killed his father ten years ago. In spite of being permanently laid on a special bed and remaining alive through artificial respiration, Neil uses software of speech recognition that allows him to write daily posts on “Platittude”, his personal blog. The idea of it is leaving his thoughts on life to his son Oscar and to raise awareness of the importance of financing research on the MND. The film’s greatest chievement is telling the last journey of a anonymous man by leaving aside any element of grandiloquence. 

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