As promised, it’s time for my “Best Documentary Characters of All Time” list. You may be wondering: How does one go about compiling a list of best characters from nonfiction films? These “characters” aren’t the products of imagination and craft, after all; they are real people. But, wait, don’t we have the expression, “He/she is a real character?” Yes, indeed, any doc lover knows that the ingredient that most often makes a documentary stand out is a memorable character, so when I drew up this list, I focused on a person’s originality, resonance, entertainment value and generosity. What I mean by that last attribute is the person’s generosity with the camera: how much of him- or herself the person gives up to the audience. It’s not always a selfless endeavor, of course — a lot of doc subjects are serving their own interests. And yet, in the end, when real people open themselves up to a filmmaker and share their lives with us, they become characters, who, in a way, do belong to us. So, enjoy, critique, and take it as you will…

Tony from 14 Up

10) Suzy, Tony, Neil, et al. (The Up Series, starting in 1964)
I find it too hard to single out just one person from this series, which reveals that regular folks can be fascinating if you spend enough time with them. (That’s Tony in 14 Up to the right.)

9) Daniel Johnston (The Devil and Daniel Johnston, 2005)
Dementia and genius can create some interesting music and art, but it’s the man Johnston himself who is the most incredible.

8) James Carville (The War Room, 1993)
By now, he’s a very familiar personality within the fabric of America’s political culture, but 16 years ago, it was totally intoxicating to see this genius running on all cylinders at his peak.

7) William Gates and Arthur Agee (Hoop Dreams, 1994)
The term “inner city youth” comes to life in the flesh through the sweat and tears of these two struggling boys.

6) Arnie Friedman (Capturing the Friedmans, 2003)
The line between mensch and malevolence has never seemed so thin. It’s the quiet despair with which Friedman faces his end in prison that moves me most.

5) Father O’Grady (Deliver Us from Evil, 2006)
Watching and listening to pedophile priest O’Grady is sickening and starkly revealing; and it’s even more disturbing to think that being on film gives him some solace.

4) Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man, 2005)
Treadwell’s wacked-out idealism is so utterly entertaining and sad. Few characters make me feel more guilty for enjoying them so much.
Timothy Treadwell in Grizzly Man

Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man

3) Damien Echols (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, 1996)
Was Echols guilty of an appalling murder? Or of simply not fitting in? I tend to think the latter, which makes the ways in which this twisted kid implicates himself all the more riveting and unbearably sad.
2) Nanook (Nanook of the North, 1922)
So, sure, because of director Robert Flaherty‘s reenactments, an Inuit by the name of Allakariallak performed in this film as Nanook, but let’s not quibble. At the dawn of the genre, Nanook defined the standard by which we now look at all great doc characters: he was someone so different, and yet so familiar at the same time.
And finally…

Grey Gardens

Still image from Grey Gardens
by Albert and David Mayles

1) Big Edie and Little Edie (Grey Gardens, 1976)
These two are so utterly fascinating, tragic, funny, endearing and, ultimately, human. To me, they are the definition of great characters.
Why are there so few women on this list? I guess it’s a reflection of my interests and also of the docs that get made. Care to name some of your favorite women characters in the comments section?

Published by

Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen