Ten biographical portrait documentaries you must watch

June 21, 2021

Documentary films are definitely the most realistic approach when it comes to filming a human being’s life. The intrinsic relationship between the documentary genre and reality is just unavoidable; that’s why portrait documentaries make us celebrate humanity like no other form of art.

In this list, Guidedoc brings you ten great biography documentaries that introduce us to the most memorable characters.

How to film a biography documentary?

Since the beginning of history, human beings have been attracted to extraordinary stories of real characters that stand out from the ordinary. From Jesus Christ in the Bible, to travel and adventure literature in the European colonies, to modern times, with characters such as Hitler himself, Ghandi or Michael Jackson.

With the birth of cinema, biographical accounts took on a new perspective, much closer, more realistic and vivid. Portrait documentaries became the content par excellence to learn about our history through that of another human being. 

In the 50's, with neorealist cinema, the protagonists of these biographies went from being mythical heroes to anonymous faces. More and more female faces move from the shadows to the light, bringing to light the stories of women who change the world from the everyday. Nowadays, documentaries have become a powerful tool to reflect on the human condition through a life story.

What are the best portrait or biographical documentaries to watch online?




A picture in black and white of Marcela, the protagonist of Marcela the documentary


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.

onceived 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.




A still from Santiago, the Brazilian documentary


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

 Edith Bouvier and Edith Ewing Bouvier in the documentary Grey Gardens


The Maysles brothers get into the house of Edith Ewing Bouvier and her daughter 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 were 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. 




A woman talks on the phone in the documentary Outro


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 dilemma 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


Neil Plat and his son in the documentary I Am Breathing


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 the software of speech recognition that allows him to write daily posts on “Platittude”, his personal blog in the Internet.

The idea of it is to leave 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 achievement is telling the last journey of an anonymous man by leaving aside any element of grandiloquence. 


The Other One


A man and a dead whale in a solitary beach in the documentary The Other One

Filming the lives of other people sometimes implies an ethnographic documentary approach. In this film premiered at the prestigious Visions Du Réel Film Festival, filmmaker Francisco Bermejo leaves his comfort zone to immerse himself in the enigmatic world of a lonely man living on a remote beach in the southern part of the planet.

Inspired by the novel "Moby Dick", this man begins an inner journey into his deepest fears through conversations he has with himself. Bordering on schizophrenia and surrounded by the ghosts of his past family history, other characters begin to emerge from these dialogues, who are nothing more than other versions of himself.

In a sort of hybrid documentary, our character suddenly becomes an actor who brings out all the truth that lies within his soul. 

Remembering Leonard Nimoy


Leonard Nimoy as Doctor Spock in Star-Treck


Far from the neat look you usually see in TV documentaries about famous people, this documentary is a good example of what a standalone film about the human side of a Hollywood star looks like.

After his death in 2015, Leonard Nimoy will be remembered as an iconic actor, most notably for his portrayal of Doctor Spock in the cult science fiction series Star-Treck.

His daughter Julie Nimoy along with filmmaker David Knight made this biographical documentary about her father from a prominently family point of view, using never-before-seen home video footage and including the testimonies of friends and relatives that compose an endearing portrait of this unforgettable American ac

Mrs. Loosli

Mrs. Loosli in her house in the Swiss Mountains in the documentary Mrs. Loosli

How can a seemingly "insignificant" life mean so much to so many people at the same time? Living at home in a remote village in the Swiss mountains, Mrs. Loosli lives her days in solitude after the death of her husband.

Accompanied only by her faithful dog, and surrounded by household objects laden with an emotional past, Mrs. Loosli's hours seem to pass without ups and downs, in a kind of typical rural life.

This documentary is the best example of respectful observation of the simple life of an anonymous heroine who, like us finds, in apparently insignificant details, another reason to continue living with dignity. A beautiful documentary portrait.

Happy Today

An African woman in a well in Uganda in the documentary Happy Today

Beautifully photographed in a small village in northern Uganda, this short documentary follows the life of Patricia, a young African woman who is dedicated to assisting expectant mothers in giving birth.

In her own voice, Patricia explains what it means to her to be able to serve her neighbors in Kalongo, her humble native village, which rests at the foot of majestic Mount Oret.

In this feminine portrait about the sense of belonging to her land and on the passion for a profession, we get to know the face behind an unsung heroine of a resilient community.

Her experience reminds us of those of millions of people who dedicate themselves with their silent and sometimes invisible work to create a better social reality for their people.

The Blue Flower Of Novalis


Marcelo, the protagonist of the documentary The Blue Flower Of Novalis


This is surely the most irreverent portrait you will see on this list. Intellectual, irredeemably honest, homosexual and libertine, Marcelo is a Brazilian man who does not go unnoticed.

As he explains in this LGBTI documentary, he is also the reincarnation of a renowned German poet, and also the black sheep of a wealthy family who lost a son, his brother.

With a boldness only seen in new Brazilian cinema, this is a performative portrait, in which Marcelo acts out several versions of himself, self-interviewing himself and even having oral sex in front of the camera.


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