You cannot fight a passion, can you? That thirst that sometimes keeps you indoors in the evenings and up at night. It’s a real passion for the continent, its nature, its people and their reality, that made me spend hours and hours watching a collection of documentaries on South America; some of them truly mesmerizing, others simply not worth mentioning.

In this selection, I’ll save you the time by presenting and rating these films about the most important topics in South America, from politics to culture to traditional rituals and landscapes. Watch these documentaries (sometimes for free) if you’re eager to understand these fascinating aspects of South America; or simply to revel in some of the unique landscapes that the continent boasts. 

The Salt of the Earth

(Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, Brazil-France-Italy, 2014)

The Salt of the Earth documentary about South America

This César-winning, Oscar-nominated film follows Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado, who spent 40 years of his life documenting societies in different corners of the world. On one of his shooting trips, he was accompanied by his son, filmmaker Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, and by famous film director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire; Buena Vista Social Club; Paris, Texas). The result of this trip is this lyrical, enchanting film, an ode to our planet and its most diverse inhabitants, as portrayed by one of his most relentless witnesses and an important representative of South American culture.

What makes this film one of the best documentaries from South America is the poetic atmosphere emerging from the storytelling, through Salgado’s photos and the precious nature the camera revisits. There are fantastic shots about South America as we learn about the political turmoil going on on the continent. Understandably, there’s a special focus on Brazil in the 70’s, when many artists –including Salgado himself– fled the military dictatorship.

Watch it here: Filmin

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 5/5

There are several beautiful shots in the documentary from Salgado’s home region, Minas Gerais, that we also visited. Check out our post about Ouro Preto, former capital of Minas Gerais, now UNESCO World Heritage site!

Women of the Venezuelan Chaos

(Margarita Cadenas, France-Venezuela, 2017)

Documentary set in South America

This South American documentary is not only an important voice for the feminist movement on the continent. For me, it’s first and foremost a realistic view on the terrible events that have been shaking Venezuela all these past years, told through the stories of women. The directress follows a handful of Venezuelan women, exploring their everyday life during the crisis that is still ongoing nowadays. These women come from very different backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common – their stories would be unimaginable in stable countries. Sadly, in Venezuela, their difficulties are common: a widespread shortage of food and medicines, and robberies that can happen anytime.

This is a rather non-political, shockingly honest film about the plight that the Venezuelan society has had to face for too long now. A must-watch for everyone who wants to get a better understanding of these current events.

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 4/5

Are you interested in feminism in South America? Read about Juana Azurduy, a badass Bolivian heroine of South American independence, who can be a true role model in modern feminism.

The War on Democracy

(John Pilger, United States, 2007)

The War on Democracy

This film might be slightly older that the others in our selection, but the topic is still very relevant nowadays throughout the whole continent. It relates the series of US interventions and their consequences on countries such as Chile, Bolivia, and Venezuela.

Filmmaker John Pilger acts as a journalist, interviewing several South American politicians such as Venezuela’s former president Hugo Chavez, and survivors of the tortures backed by the US. Although the film looks at the topic from a political/historical point of view, what most struck me were the deeply tragic personal stories that are told.

The War on Democracy made it to our list of best documentaries about South America because its topic is still so vivid nowadays. The US interference, both politically and economically, come up in many conversations with South Americans from all generations. Unfortunately, the image quality on Vimeo is not the best, so take that into account when choosing screen size to watch it.

Watch it here for free: Vimeo

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 3/5

Want to know more about this topic? We strongly recommend Eduardo Galeano’s book ‘The Open Veins of Latin America‘, as featured on our list of best books about South America.

The Nature of Ayahuasca

(Gavin Hoffman, Ireland, 2019)

The Nature of Ayahuasca

More and more people are getting acquainted, near or far, with Ayahuasca, the Amazonian healing herb used by the indigenous in rituals. This documentary follows a group of Westerners as they take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony deep in the Peruvian Amazonia. The viewers get introduced to the sacred plant and to century-old Peruvian traditions, while following the participants of the ceremony. We also get to meet the local, important figures of the Ayahuasca ceremonies: the shamans and the healers, or “curanderos”.

The film also showcases a growing reality: the search for hallucinogenic experiences is becoming an important part of tourism in South America. More and more Western tourists travel to the countries of the Amazon rainforest with the intention of experiencing Ayahuasca, or its close relative San Pedro. But not everyone is actually mentally or physically ready for it. This documentary explains the basics of the tradition and gives advice on how to have the safest experience. Understandably, the filmmaker didn’t want to shoot during the Ayahuasca ceremony, so that is missing from the film.

Watch it here for free: Documentary Heaven

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 3/5

Santiago, Itália

(Nanni Moretti, Italy, 2018)

Best documentaries from South America

Santiago, Italia is a masterpiece of a documentary that will sit in my mind for a long time. The film revives what is probably the most discussed and important event in modern Chilean history: the military coup against the socialist leader Salvador Allende, and the first years of the subsequent Pinochet dictatorship in the 70s.

It introduces the topic from a very special point of view, through the eyes of the hundreds of Chileans who opposed the new Pinochet regime and found refuge from the oppression in the Italian embassy in the Chilean capital, Santiago. After 8 months of hiding in the embassy, they finally managed to flee to Italy to start a new life there.

It’s a really thrilling and heartfelt film that not only relates to the shocking events of that period but is also a tribute to the Italian sense of integration, friendship, humanity. Apart from being a truly amazing documentary about a dark episode in South American history, I feel it’s also an important story of human empathy – one that is especially important to tell and hear nowadays.

Watch it here: Filmin, MUBI

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 5/5

A Line Across the Sky

(Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer, United States, 2015)

A Line Across the Sky

When talking of documentaries about South America, mention must be made of the most iconic landscape on the continent, a stunning part of the world that attracts around 150 thousand visitors yearly: Patagonia. A Line Across the Sky is a mini-series of two 20-min episodes. It documents the epic journey of two US American rock climbers on Patagonia’s most famous mountain, the Fitz Roy; climbing the so-called “Fitz Roy traverse”. Fitz Roy is a mountain in the Andes mountain range on the border of Argentina and Chile.

For mountaineers and climbers, this film is a must; but even less extreme hikers, and mere travel lovers, will enjoy these breathtaking images of snowy-icy rock landscape, and of course, the captivating story. The climbers shot themselves this film about their ascension; it’s great to get their personal commentary about the climb and their passion in general.

What I like about this fascinating film is how it immersed me into that world, even though I’m not a climber myself. It’s really a story about pushing yourself over your own limits. And watching these guys, I wished I were a badass climber myself! And that otherworldly South American landscape is just uncomparable…

Watch it here for free: RedBull

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 4/5

Do you love mountains? Check out our post about 3 amazing hikes we did in the no-less amazing Huascarán National Park in Peru. I promise they are doable by non-alpinists too!

Tropicália

(Marcelo Machado, Brazil-US-UK, 2012)

Tropicalia documentary

The title of this film isn’t the name of an exotic cocktail, but that of an important Brazilian artistic movement of the 60’s: Tropicália or Tropicalismo. It was present in many art forms, and this South American documentary explains its history in music, which was the most important form of Tropicalismo. The film is replete with music and much of it is edited from original footage, with some fun hippy effects added in 60’s design.

Tropicalismo was born right before the Brazilian dictatorship, and its most important artists –Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil– were silenced when the military took power. This documentary about Tropicalismo is an important piece for Brazilian and South American music fans, or anyone who’s keen on great music.

Watch it here for free: YouTube

Watch the trailer

Our rating: 4/5

If you’d like to watch more cool films from South America, check out our post about all-times great movies from South America.

Have you seen any of these documentaries, or others you recommend?
Tell us in the comments section below!


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Best South American Documentaries

Who am I?

Anna is a world citizen, an avid traveller, a passionate environmentalist and a digital nomad. Writing about her year backpacking through South America, she tries to encourage everyone to discover this beautiful continent as a traveller or a digital nomad and pass on her love for responsible travel.

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