7 Documentaries That Tell Deeply Personal Stories

Regardless of genre or subject matter, making a film is hard. The release of any movie - no matter the quality - should be celebrated. Okay, there are some exceptions but my point remains: creating a film is a difficult and challenging process.


As a result, I am always blown away by documentaries that tell a deeply personal story. Not only have those filmmakers had to deal with about a billion practical and logistical demands, but they have also had to explore incredibly 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 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 then documentaries can be of informative and therapeutic value for both the filmmaker and the audience.


For example, Stories We Tell is both the story of Polley’s family and also an exploration of the act of storytelling. The film digs deeper and focuses on more universal questions - looking at the concept of truth and the elusive nature of memory.


In addition, Orlando von Einsiedel’s documentary, Evelyn, is both a journey into one family’s grief and also an important examination of the impact of suicide. Dear Zachary, meanwhile, is both a tribute to a beloved friend and an emotional campaign for a change in the law.


As a result, the personal doc is an extremely powerful sub-genre. Here are 7 of my favourite documentaries that tell deeply personal stories:


Stories We Tell

As mentioned above, Stories We Tell is an intimate exploration of Sarah Polley’s family. As Polley unravels (detective style) the mysteries of her childhood, she reveals an intimate and intriguing collection of memories about the mother, Diane, she lost aged just 11 years old.


We care about the Polley family because they tell a remarkable tale in an incredibly engaging way and also because, through their storytelling, we understand the importance of the stories in our own lives.


Click here to read my review of Stories We Tell



Evelyn is a powerful and deeply moving documentary about suicide and its lasting impact on the family and friends left behind. This film is both a deeply personal story and a movie that inspires wider discussion of an important issue that is still considered taboo.


Click here to read my review of Evelyn


Dear Zachary

In 2001, one of filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s best friends was murdered. 28 year old Andrew Bagby was found dead in Pennsylvania. He had been shot.


Within 24 hours of hearing this devastating news, Kuenne decided to make a film about his friend in order to process his grief and honour the impact that Andrew had made on him - and many others.


Click here to read my review of Dear Zachary



Kirsten Johnson is one of the most respected cinematographers working in documentary cinema. Her impressive filmography includes Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Invisible War and Audrie & Daisy. 


After 25 years behind the camera, Johnson decided to take pieces of memorable footage and edit them together to form a memoir, an exploration of human connections and a look at what it means to film and be filmed.


Click here to read my review of Cameraperson


Strong Island

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. 


Click here for my review of Strong Island 


Minding The Gap

First-time filmmaker Bing Liu’s Oscar nominated documentary, Minding the Gap, is a powerful and deeply 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.


Click here for my review of Minding The Gap



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 seriousness and depth 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 documentary film.


Click here for my review of Unrest


Over To You...

Have you seen any of these 7 documentaries? If so, what did you think?


What films would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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