Regardless of genre or subject matter, filmmaking is hard. The release of any movie - no matter the quality - should be celebrated. Okay, there are some exceptions, but you get my point: creating a film is an incredibly difficult and challenging process.
I am always blown away by documentaries that tell personal stories. Not only have those filmmakers had to deal with about a billion practical and logistical demands, but they have also explored their own intimate and emotional life experiences.
It does make you wonder why. Why would you put yourself through this? What will prevent your film from becoming narcissistic? How do you ensure that your story will be of interest to others? These questions troubled director, Sarah Polley, as she set out to make her stunning documentary, Stories We Tell.
In a blog post published shortly before her film was released, she admitted that personal documentaries made her feel squeamish. “I’ve seen some brilliant ones, but they often push the boundaries of narcissism and can feel more like a form of therapy than actual filmmaking.”
However, at no stage does Stories We Tell feel narcissistic because the themes that Polley explores are both personal and universal. If this balance can be achieved, documentaries can be of informative and therapeutic value for both the filmmaker and the audience.
As a result, the personal doc is an extremely powerful sub-genre. Here are 10 of my favourite documentaries that tell deeply personal stories...
Stories We Tell
In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley examines her family history. As she unravels (detective style) the mysteries of her childhood, Polley reveals an intimate and intriguing collection of memories about the mother she lost when she was just 11 years old.
We care about the Polley family because they tell their remarkable tale in an incredibly engaging way and also because, through their storytelling, we understand the importance of the stories in our own lives.
Dick Johnson Is Dead
Kirsten Johnson takes us on an incredibly personal journey as she processes her father’s dementia. As its title suggests, this is no ordinary documentary about illness and loss. In Dick Johnson Is Dead, Johnson stages inventive and fantastical ways to kill her father.
We watch as Dick Johnson is “killed” by a descending air conditioning unit, a fatal (and shocking) fall down some stairs and a deadly trip while walking. On paper, the concept seems unbearably morbid and, perhaps, of questionable taste.
On screen, however, this documentary is a joy - full of humour and warmth. Dick Johnson is endearing, insightful and supportive of his daughter’s project. As a result, this is a stunning portrait of a loving and respectful relationship and a beautiful exploration of mortality.
Evelyn is a powerful and deeply moving documentary about suicide and its lasting impact on the family and friends left behind. Orlando von Einsiedel film is both a deeply personal story and a movie that inspires wider discussion of an important issue that is still considered taboo.
13 years after Evelyn’s death, von Einsiede could barely say his name. It was just too painful. Far better to bury all feelings of grief and sadness and move forward - making such stunning documentaries as Virunga and Oscar-winning short doc, The White Helmets.
In making these films, von Einsiede put himself in dangerous situations full of conflict and violence. However, confronting the void created by Evelyn’s death proved to be the greatest challenge for the director by far.
One Child Nation
In her film about China’s extreme population control policy, director Nanfu Wang blends personal stories with universal themes. It is startling to realise that, while China’s one child policy ended in 2015, the process of dealing with the trauma of its heartless and inhumane enforcement is only just beginning.
In One Child Nation, Wang uses emotional to camera interviews to reveal the conflict between the rights of the individual and what the Chinese people have been taught to accept is right for their country.
What grips and engages us is Wang’s experience of the policy having grown up in China, moved to the US and given birth to her first child. She shares her family’s personal - and heartbreaking - stories and explores how this social experiment devastated lives.
Strong Island chronicles the arc of a family across history, geography and tragedy - from the racial segregation of the Jim Crow South to the promise of New York City; from the presumed safety of middle class suburbs, to the maelstrom of an unexpected, violent death.
This is the story of the Ford family: Barbara Dunmore, William Ford and their three children and how their lives were shaped by the enduring shadow of race in America.
I defy anyone not to remain unmoved by Yance Ford’s deeply personal documentary. While films exploring racism and injustice are (sadly) no longer rare, this feels different. Strong Island’s raw emotional intensity (driven by Ford’s uncompromising to camera interviews) is incredibly powerful and thought-provoking.
Minding The Gap
First-time filmmaker Bing Liu’s Oscar nominated documentary, Minding the Gap, is a powerful and emotional coming-of-age story. The film follows three skateboarding friends - Bing, 23 year old Zack and 17 year old Keire - who all grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a recession hit factory city two hours west of Chicago.
While Minding The Gap features many joyous and breathtaking skateboarding sequences, this is not a documentary about skateboarding. Instead, the film uses the bond created by a shared love of skateboarding to try to understand why Bing and his friends all ran away from home when they were younger.
As the film unfolds, Bing explores the darker side of his childhood. At the same time, he is thrust into the middle of Zack’s increasingly troubling relationship with his girlfriend, Nina, and he witnesses Keire’s inner struggles with his racial identity and the loss of his father.
Meanwhile, as he documents these heartbreakingly intimate stories, Bing explores more universal issues such as the gap between fathers and sons, the difference between discipline and domestic abuse and the challenging journey from childhood to becoming an adult.
Twenty-eight year-old Jennifer Brea was working on her PhD at Harvard and was months away from marrying the love of her life when she contracted a mysterious fever that left her so ill that she became bedbound.
Often in excruciating pain, Brea became increasingly unwell - eventually losing the ability to even sit in a wheelchair. However, her doctors told her that it was "all in her head" and dismissed her concerns.
Unable to convey the nature and seriousness of her symptoms to her doctor, Brea began a video diary on her iPhone. This diary, which shows in moving and often upsetting scenes the true nature of her debilitating illness, eventually inspired her to make a deeply personal and inspiring documentary film.
For Sama isn’t the first documentary that I have watched about the devastating conflict in Syria. Over the last few years, there has been a steady influx of films depicting the war and the battle for Aleppo. However, Waad al-Kateab’s documentary is the one I feel will stay with me the most.
It is For Sama’s mix of powerful journalism and intimate storytelling that makes this film an unforgettable experience. The documentary offers both an uncompromising and important account of life in Aleppo between 2012 and 2016 and immersive access to a family under siege.
For Sama’s depiction of family life is deeply affecting - this is a mother’s heartfelt message to her baby daughter. Waad narrates her own story, explaining to Sama why she and Sama's father decided to stay in such a dangerous place, what it was really like and why, in the end, they had to leave.
Locked In: Breaking the Silence
Locked In: Breaking the Silence follows director Xavier Alford as he faces an illness that he has, for years, been unable to confront. As his condition became impossible to ignore, Alford decided to make a film about his experience - exploring what the future holds for his body, his career and - most importantly - his family.
At its heart, Locked In is a deeply moving love letter from Alford to his wife. This powerful and compelling documentary begins and ends with the couple - Alford in front of the camera, Anna off screen. They face a terrifyingly uncertain future - one that, until now, Alford has never wanted to discuss.
Me And The Cult Leader
Atsushi Sakahara survived the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo's subway system. For 20 years, Sakahara has suffered from the effects of the attack - he has symptoms of fatigue, paralysis and post traumatic stress. Throughout this time, he has struggled to understand why the incident took place.
In Me And The Cult Leader, Sakahara documents his journey with Hiroshi Araki, an executive of Aleph (formerly Aum Shinrikyo) - the attack's perpetrators. They visit their respective hometowns and the university that they both attended.
During their travels, the unlikely pair talk about their lives, their families and their beliefs - developing a surprising and often moving bond. We see them laughing together, skipping stones and sharing headphones.
These intimate moments are surprising - even charming. However, the documentary never loses sight of its ultimate purpose - to find the human behind the mask of Aum and to expose the banality of evil.