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Best biographical documentaries

"Amy" is a documentary about the British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. The documentary is a non-exploitive telling of the singer's life.  – Photo by Photo by Wikimedia | The Daily Targum

These past few weeks have been hard for all of us and full of uncertainty and anxiety. But if there’s anything that inspires us to keep going, it's each other. 

The human spirit is impressive and as pack animals, we find ourselves gravitating to stories of people who we can either relate to and empathize with. Additionally, it’s natural to like to get into the mind of others and see who they really are, regardless of if we like them or not. 

Documentaries allow us to do that. 

This week we’ve compiled a list of our favorite biographical documentaries, all of which showcase the human spirit in different lights — the good, the bad and the ugly.

"The Fear of 13"

I first saw this film a few years back and since then I have never forgotten it. “The Fear of 13” tells the story of Nick Yarris, a man who spent 20 years on death row for a crime he did not commit. Yaris tells his story on his own in this documentary. 

He explains what it felt like to be wrongfully convicted, escape prison for 25 days, fall in love while in prison, become a book fanatic and ultimately be exonerated. Yarris is eloquent and a master storyteller and he brings his story to life in “The Fear of 13.”


As an Amy Winehouse fan, I liked this documentary because it was a beautiful retelling of Winehouse — the good and the bad. “Amy” is a non-exploitive documentary about Winehouse and in it we see the many ups and downs she had from her childhood up until her untimely death. This documentary showcases her substance issues, but that’s not all it showcases. 

We see Winehouse's struggle with family and fame and her desire for love and music. We see how the world wanted more from her, more she just couldn’t give. “Amy” showcases the unraveling of Winehouse in this expose of her life, but above all we see her beauty. 

"Life Animated"

This documentary is a feel good one that’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face. “Life Animated” follows the story of an autistic man, Owen Suskind, who learned how to read, write and communicate through his love of Disney movies. 

Owen’s father, Ron Suskind, explained that Owen Suskind stopped talking and acting like he used to at three years old. That’s when Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism. His parents believed he wouldn't speak ever again, but were amazed to see that Owen Suskind began to communicate through dialogue he heard while watching Disney movies. 

This documentary combines the happiest of things: Disney, family and love to tell Owen Suskind’s story and showcase all he’s been able to accomplish. 

"The Act of Killing"

I first studied this film in my history class sophomore year and later in a documentary filmmaking class I took. The film absolutely impressed me both times. “The Act of Killing” is like no other. It follows now-elderly men who viciously killed hundreds of people during the Indonesian anti-communist wars of the '60s. 

Film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer not only interviewed these men, but also asked them to stage recreations of the murders and killings. “The Act of Killing” is chilling and hard to stomach at times as it examines the brutality of war and killers. But what will stun you is the proximity and access we have to killers in this film — their bluntness, inner thoughts and later, their remorse. This film is an incredible account of history and humanity. 

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