I am mostly against the critical valuation of real people in documentaries. I’ve written about this in the past, specifically in response to the reviews of The Imposter that judged subject Frederic Bourdin more than the film itself. I also wondered last fall whether it is okay to highlight the “best” characters of a given year in the form of the Cinema Eye Honors recognition of “The Unforgettables.” On that, I eventually came around to agreeing that memorable documentary characters deserve recognition if not a competitive prize that puts one above the rest (and the CEH don’t mean for them to be “the best,” just unforgettable). Even calling them characters makes me conflicted at times, but within the film space and narrative, that is what they are.
Ranking these characters, though, or calling them “best” or “worst,” isn’t something I feel comfortable doing. However, it is more acceptable to discuss a documentary character positively than negatively. Calling someone inspiring is fair, but calling someone despicable is not. Unless their deeds are horrible enough that calling a subject such is about considering them beyond the personality they exhibit on screen (think Hitler in Triumph of the Will, Anwar Congo in The Act of Killing and really any other genocidal leader). We can think anything we want of these people privately and even discuss them amongst ourselves as part of the audience, but there’s no place for it in film criticism.
So this list, which is inspired by my ongoing consideration of the Up Series for its 50th anniversary, is not intended to be a critique of any of these people (or of any of those who are absent). It is instead a celebration of ten people for being memorable characters of cinema, who just happen to be real individuals. They’re not even necessarily all likable, though in the context of their films that can be more about how they’re portrayed by the filmmakers — this is something that is permissible to address in criticism — than how they truly are.
I’ve tried to be as objective as possible with the choices, though memory is subjective and I’m sure most of you can name others you’ve found more memorable. Go ahead and share their names down below.