Love is real, but most love stories are romanticized — fictions for the fantasy of love. That’s what many people want to watch on Valentine’s Day and any other time they’re in the mood for love in the movies. There aren’t a lot of documentaries that offer the equivalent of a rom-com, because the truth hurts when it comes to real love, or at least it does for the sort that makes for fascinating nonfiction.
Below is a sampling of films that document the reality of various types of love stories. If you’re looking for simple happily ever after, you’ve come to the wrong place, though this list is not without its share of heartwarming tenderness.
Only the Young (2012)
There’s no better place to begin than with young love. First love is difficult to capture with a documentary because no filmmaker can anticipate the moment when a person begins to have feelings for another. With Only the Young, however, directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet capture the sparks between a trio of teenagers while following the lives of evangelical skate punks in Southern California at the end of the Great Recession.
While there are other nonfiction films depicting coming of age and first love (The Argentinian Lesson is one I often highlight), Only the Young is the best portrait of the confusion and fleetingness of high school relationships.
Sherman’s March (1985)
If Only the Young is the best documentary equivalent of a John Hughes era teen romcom, then Ross McElwee‘s classic Sherman’s March is the best parallel for the grown-up variety (and one of the best docs period). After a bad breakup, Ivy League New England transplant McElwee wittily documents his own pursuit of love throughout the American South while also focusing his lens on the titular Civil War campaign.
This is a first-person experiential doc without talking heads, but McElwee still manages to feature some expertise on his subject in the form of an old teacher and friend — arguably the best documentary character of all time, Charleen Swansea (whom I just noticed passed away last summer) — who humorously tries to set him up with potential mates.
Heartbound: A Different Kind of Love Story (2018)
Speaking of matchmakers, Janus Metz and Sine Plambech’s Heartbound continues a decade-long, multi-film profile of a woman named Sommai who arranges for Thai girls to move to a town in Denmark and marry local men. This feature also follows other characters in both Thailand and Denmark attempting to emigrate with Sommai’s assistance.
Sommai’s own story of meeting her husband while working as a prostitute in Thailand is fascinating on its own, but the additional stories offer complex considerations of love and the questions of whether it’s possible to learn to love someone after such an arrangement is made out of convenience and whether love itself is just as constraining anyway.
Crazy Love (2007)
Contrasting greatly with Heartbound, this documentary depicts the power of love to keep two people together who probably should have broken apart forever. After all, it’s the story of a man who hired thugs to throw lye in his girlfriend’s face, and after his many years in prison, she got back with him anyway.
As I’ve written before on why Crazy Love is the perfect Valentine’s Day documentary, the film shows us that true romance “has to be unbelievable and involve questionable sanity. It must be fantastic and unfamiliar and unhinged and be easily mistaken for something completely unromantic.”
The Loving Story (2011)
The first of two essential documentaries on forbidden relationships, The Loving Story is about the perfectly named Richard and Mildred Loving. They were an interracial couple in Virginia who’d legally married out of state but then were persecuted back home for what was deemed a criminal union. The story has since been dramatized in the beautiful film Loving.
One of the reasons the story is so important is that it changed the law through a landmark civil rights case. Another reason is that it shows the strength of love to be above the law and prejudice and get us through any obstacles in its way. The documentary itself is also wonderful for making use of footage shot of the Lovings in the 1960s illustrating their genuine affection, which is best seen rather than heard about.
Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives (1992)
Still, testimonial interviews can offer a lot on their own, as well, especially if their stories are as vividly told as those in Forbidden Love. There are a lot of LGBT documentaries that I could recommend that involve love, and some of them have been featured alongside this one on other lists. Forbidden Love stands out in my mind for its humor and frankness and definitely its early ’90s charm with its nostalgically pulpy dramatizations.
Very specifically focused on lesbians from all over Canada with tales spanning the decades of the mid-20th century before the country’s decriminalization of homosexuality in 1969, the documentary is full of relatable moments for any viewer of any place, gender, or sexual orientation, and everything else is empathically felt.
Animal Love (1996)
While not as explicitly disturbing as the title or even the trailer would have you believe, Animal Love is an Ulrich Seidl film and so definitely provocative. The film presents a number of the filmmaker’s trademark portraits (still life in motion) of people and their pets — mostly dogs but also rabbits, cats, rats, et al. They aren’t sexual relationships but can be more physical than you’d agree with, as we meet people who’ve substituted or filled in gaps for their loneliness or trouble with human love.
When sharing a list of his favorite docs with us a few years ago, The Act of Killing director Joshua Oppenheimer said of Animal Love: “Here, Seidl teaches us that documentary should always be about fiction, and he does this by showing with such precision that love is built on projection, and projection is built on fantasy.”
Alma Har’el‘s LoveTrue is one of the most ambitious documentaries to ever directly tackle the subject of love, and while it’s not perfectly worked out, that’s understandable given the task. The film looks at three different stories of love in all its dark and complicated reality, focusing on a stripper in need of love in Alaska, a father in Hawaii learning a difficult truth about his relationship, and a daughter of separated parents in New York City.
Always quite the artsy documentarian, Har’el doesn’t offer up these character portraits in a straightforward manner, choosing instead a layered and complex feature involving dramatizations that are anything but simple reenactments. No other subject but the difficult-to-grasp concept of love deserves such a stylishly evocative treatment.
My Love, Don’t Cross That River (2014)
Most of the documentaries on this list involve love stories that aren’t very encouraging for the hopeful romantic. The hit Korean film My Love, Don’t Cross That River, as heartwrenching as it is, depicts a couple who have been together for many, many years and shows them as doting and devoted and playful as ever in their old age. It’s the sort of bond we all dream of having through to our final days.
Of course, that means there’s still heartbreak, with the arrival of death. And yes, spoiler alert, one of this happy couple does die during the film, and as sad as that is on its own for the audience, who has gotten to know the couple so well, the real punch to the gut is how sad it is watching the remaining half of the duo in such a state of mourning. The greater the love, the greater the anguish when separation is so unavoidable.
Level Five (1997)
If LoveTrue isn’t artsy enough for you, Chris Marker‘s Level Five will do the trick. The experimental film is about a lot of things, many of which are up to your own interpretation, but at its center is a story of posthumous affection. A fictional woman takes on the job of completing a historical “video game” about the Battle of Okinawa during World War II that was started by her recently deceased lover, to whom she communicates through their computer.
Level Five is also kind of a love letter to Marker himself (and especially felt as such when finally released in the US after his death), and like many of his films deals in memory and the subjective recall and perception of the past (while also being prophetic about the future). If every doc on this list needed a non-doc romance film pairing, Level Five would best compliment Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour.