With the scope of possibility in visual effects and the boundlessness of imagination there are very few places we cannot explore in fiction nowadays… that is unless we explore stories that are stranger than fiction.
There is a tangible thirst for the real; the overwhelming response to Netflix documentary Making a Murderer in the news and social media, as just one example, exposes the desire for and importance of representation of real events available to be streamed to a large audience. We love a case we can really sink our teeth into and, whether on screen or off, documentary even has the power to deliver justice.
Through documentary, we are offered a look into the actions, beliefs and injustices of others whose lives and experiences are vastly different to our own. We are introduced to events that we can become invested in and leave feeling as though we have a personal stake in what we have witnessed. Through the eyes and lens of the director, we are offered a vision of ‘truth’ and the exciting challenge begins when we decide if we buy into the truth we have been presented with and the moral implications either way.
With a selection of older titles and new Netflix originals, well-known names and hidden gems, these titles offer a powerful and varied documentary experience.
13th is a powerful documentary that highlights a key loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that abolished slavery. With the former systems of slavery, convict leasing and then the oppressive laws under Jim Crow no longer in place, black American men in particular are finding themselves slaves under the latest guise: mass incarceration. Slavery is no longer legal “except as a punishment for crime” and with the depiction of the young black male as predatory and a crack-down on crack cocaine in poor black communities, director Ava DuVernay presents the latest means of black oppression.
The documentary’s closing audio featuring Donald Trump praising the “good old days” of violent justice pushes the message to the fore and really emphasises the ongoing racial prejudice in modern day America. With activists, academics and politicians weighing in on the subject in evocative and marginalised positions in DuVernay’s frame, a picture is created of the evolving justice system as archive footage and animated statistics chart the rise of African American inmates in United States prisons. The terrifyingly racist 1915 film The Birth Of A Nation resonated with treatment of black Americans today. Get ready for some alarming social truth.
Abducted In Plain Sight (2017)
Shocking and heart-breaking story of charismatic weirdo Robert Berchtold who abducted 12-year-old Jan Broberg. Twice. This is a very odd, twisty tale that gets darker at ever turn as the doc slowly reveals how insidiously Berchtold infiltrated the Broberg family and completely brainwashed Jan.
The whole Broberg family contributes to the story here, often through tears, giving amazingly candid and brave anecdoates and confessions revealing how it could even be possible for Berchtold to kidnap and abuse Jan and pretty much get away with it (initially at least). Grim and surprising the deeper it goes. Read our review of Abducted in Plain Sight.
Amanda Knox (2016)
“If I am guilty it means that I am the ultimate figure to fear because I’m not the obvious one, but on the other hand, if I’m innocent, it means that everyone is vulnerable, and that’s everyone’s nightmare”. Amanda Knox looks straight into the lens in this documentary and speaks frankly on the events of 2007 in Perugia, Italy, which led to her spending almost 4 years in prison for the murder of fellow exchange student and housemate Meredith Kercher. Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn’s documentary presents events through archive footage and interviews with those involved from all angles; Knox and her boyfriend at the time Raffaele Sollecito, Nick Pisa from the British press who was gunning for sensationalist articles, and lead prosecutor in her murder case Giuliano Mignini.
This film really encourages you to decide for yourself; did Amanda Knox kill Meredith Kercher? It tells us on the one hand of the DNA evidence that places imprisoned Rudy Guede at the scene of the crime but on the other of Knox’s initial confession and the suspicion of her brutal, sexually motivated attack on the more introverted Kercher. It documents the chain of events and presents the inconsistencies of the case from a relatively impartial stance and ultimately leaves the information in our hands. There is a strong emphasis on the implications of either truth in this documentary. Despite having been definitively acquitted in 2015, Amanda Knox could still be either innocent or guilty of the murder and either way, what has happened is pretty terrifying.
American Murder: The Family Next Door (2020)
This is a distressing watch, even with those familiar with the details of the murder of Shanann Watts and her three children back in 2018, but it’s an eye-opening look at a very 21st century phenomenon: a brutal murder case that played out in real-time with no detail left uncaptured by TV cameras and on social media. It’s also a stark reminder that not all picture-perfect families are as they seem, and there isn’t a recognisable “type” when it comes to identifying abusers and killers: they very much walk among us, hiding in plain sight.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite presents Blackfish, a documentary that thrusts the corporate giant SeaWorld into the spotlight for its capture of wild orcas, or ‘killer whales’, it’s inhumane treatment of these highly intelligent and emotional mammals and the money-spinning shows in which they are forced to perform. This film is particularly relevant in light of SeaWorld’s recent cessation of their killer whale breeding programme and the death of the sea park’s big star and the main focus of this documentary: Tilikum.
In 2010 veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau was attacked and killed by Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld whose species has never been known to exhibit such violence in the wild. The film highlights how corporations are making victims of both wild creatures, now volatile in captivity, and their employees who are enticed by the glamour of the job, trained predominantly in performance and whose safety is given little regard by a company who cover up the dangerous capabilities of captive creatures. Guaranteed to turn you into a SeaWorld-hater in 1 hour and 23 minutes, this is a hugely moving documentary with some spectacular visuals from cinematographers Jonathan Ingalls and Christopher Towey. After a feature-length tale of tragedy it is wonderful to take in the majestic shots of orcas swimming in the wild, healthier and happier than any of the whales trapped in pools in Florida.
Conversations with a Killer (2019-)
Think you know Ted Bundy? You don’t until you’ve seen the extraordinary four-part documentary from Joe Berlinger (who also directed the feature film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile starring Zac Efron), the first in the documentary series Conversations with a Killer.
The first series tracks Bundys murders, apprehension, escapes, trial, media circus and eventually execution on death row via mulitple in depth interviews that Bundy gave, impressive amounts of archival footage and new on camera interviews with multiple key players including journalists, FBI Agents and legal teams who were involved at the time. A major contribution even comes from one of the survivors Bundy kidnapped and tried to kill.
After this, the Conversations with a Killer series has also released series with unearthed interviews with the likes of John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen – basically, some of the most prolific and infamous serial killers of all time – so while these are familiar stories to most true-crime fans (who will still no doubt learn something new) they’re an excellent place to start for those who are newer to the genre. Fans of Mindhunter should defintely check this out too.
Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019)
We’d issue a pretty strong warning before you embark on this disturbing, but fascinating, true crime documentary with tells the story of a man called Luka Magnotta who posted some particularly heinous animal abuse videos online, and the armchair detectives who try to bring him to justice before it’s too late.
The cat videos are truly horrendous, even though they’re not shown in their entirety (and there are further glimpses of cat cruelty, not always with warning, throughout the three eps of the show) but if you can get through these – or cover your eyes in time – it’s a crazy story about a psychopath obsessed with fame and the problems with policing the wild west of the internet.
Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (2018)
This four-part Netflix original focuses on the bizarre case of the ‘pizza bomber’. In 2003 a pizza delivery man named Brian Wells entered a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania with a bomb strapped to his chest and attempted to rob the establishment. He was quickly apprehended by the police at which point he explained he had been kidnapped and forced to carry out the heist – the only way he’d be able to release the explosive device which was fastened around his neck his neck was to solve a series of clues in a kind of twisted easter egg hunt.
We won’t reveal what happens next but the documentary is an in depth exploration of the event leading up to Wells’ robbery with an investigation around who the perpetrators might have been with a focus on whether Wells was or was not complicit in the heist. Much of the focus of the documentary is on a woman called Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong who is now in prison who provided new interviews for directors Barbara Schroeder and Trey Borzillieri. As ever the audience is left to decide exactly what really happened that day, in one of the weirdest and most shocking heist cases ever.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)
What begins as a mildly hilarious story about wealthy millennials who paid through the nose to attend a music festival in the Bahamas which turned into a disaster, quickly becomes something more sinister in Chris Smith’s excellent documentary – one of two to drop at the same time covering the topic (the other is on Hulu).
Back in 2017 arrogant entrepreneur Billy McFarland planned to run an exclusive high end music event which he said would be held on a private island in the Bahamas. To kick off ticket sales McFarland employed social media influencers and produced a video of supermodels frolicking on a private beach to sell in a party which was basically the embodiment of Instagram in real life. And people bought into it. The only trouble was McFarland was a fraudster who didn’t have half the resources he claimed to and the event such as it was was a nightmare – and things only get darker from there. This doc takes you through the excruciating build up to the event as told by Fyre Festival employees while looking at the reasons why it was even possible to sell a very expensive lie to so many people. Eye opening. Check out our Fyre review.
Gladbeck: The Hostage Crisis (2022)
This feature-length documentary tells the mind-blowing story of what happens when police mismanagement and an unchecked and increasingly sensationalist press combine to create a completely preventable tragedy, all of which was caught on camera. In 1988, two armed robbers took two bank employees hostage, first at the branch of Deutsche Banke in Gladbeck, West Germany, before escaping by car with the hostages in front of a huge press presence outside the bank. The press then followed the gunmen, filming as they abandoned their car and hijacked a bus, taking a further 27 passengers hostage. What follows is one of the most surreal moments captured on camera, as the police do nothing while one of the hostage takers is so emboldened he casually walks over to the assembled press and gives an interview, gun in hand, smoking a cigarette. The gunmen continue their crime spree well into the next day, the press hot on their tail documenting everything and continue to interview the hostage takers, before it ultimately ends in tragedy. A shocking and damning account of a truly unbelievable true crime story.
I Just Killed My Dad (2022)
There’s nothing remotely cheery about I Just Killed My Dad, directed by Skye Borgman, who is also behind Abducted in Plain Sight (above) and The Girl in the Picture (below). This three-part documentary starts with the eerie 911 call where teenager Anthony Templet calmly explains he just shot his father dead, ramps up the sinister-factor as we see a cold and emotionless Anthony describing the crime in police interviews, but then takes a swerve to the utterly bleak, as we slowly learn the truth of what life was like for Anthony in the years leading up to his father’s murder. When we hear from Anthony’s estranged mother, and the horrifying history of Anthony’s early family life is laid bare, this becomes one of the most heartbreaking true crime documentaries you’ll ever see. There’s perhaps a glimmer of hope in there too, however, and this is a fascinating albeit difficult watch.
This doc which begins with an exploration of illegal doping in athletics via an amateur cycling race, quickly escalates to become a shocking international exposé. Documentarian Bryan Fogel was looking into ways in which athletes evade drug tests and through his investigation became friends with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the director of Russia’s national anti-doping lab. Rodchenkov eventually reveals that far from anti-doping, Russia actually has an official state-sponsored doping initiative, which he himself runs, and which came into play after Russian athletes performed badly at the 2010 Winter Olympics. It’s a confession which has wide ramifications, and ends up endangering Rodchenkov’s life.
Fascinating for sports enthusiasts this shocking, thrilling doc is just as compelling even if you’re not interested in the subject matter. The movie premiered at Sundance where it won the special jury doc award; it then went on to win the Oscar for best documentary.
Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017)
Almost two decades after Man On The Moon, Milos Forman’s biopic of untrammelled comic Andy Kaufman, came Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a startling behind-the-scenes documentary about lead Jim Carrey’s process during its making. Edited from set footage that wasn’t released at the time because – as Carrey tells it – the studio feared that it made him seem like too much of an asshole, Chris Smith’s film is an unforgettable look into the psyche of one of the biggest movie stars of the 1990s. Or rather, it isn’t, because it it’s not Carrey we’re watching, but Kaufman.
On and off-set, Carrey inhabited his character completely, unreachably losing himself in his Andy persona. His method approach caused untold problems for cast and crew, all documented here in a film that’s more than simply a shock catalogue of wacky misdemeanours, but a deeper look at what acting, and living, really is. Here’s what our reviewer said about it at the time.
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story (2022)
This is undeniably a difficult watch, but it’s also an important examination of how the prolific paedophile and sexual abuser Jimmy Savile was able to get away with his horrendous crimes while maintaining a successful career as a TV and radio host for over four decades. The documentary uses archive footage and powerful testimony from his victims and former colleagues to paint a picture of how Savile carried out his monstrous crimes almost in plain sight, even using his many public charity works as a means of accessing some of his most vulnerable victims. It’s a devastating, unflinching documentary that will horrify and enrage in equal measure.
Making a Murderer (2015)
Never a finer documentary series about the miscarriage of justice made, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’ Making a Murderer took the world by storm when their 10-part Netflix original series presented the many flaws in the prosecution of Steven Avery. A mere 2 years after his exoneration for a rape he did not commit and for which he served 18 years in prison, Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin was back in police custody in 2007 for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach who had visited his family auto salvage business shortly before her disappearance.
The documentary highlights the immediacy with which people in an intimate community are willing to place blame on an easy subject: a man with a civil case against the county for his wrongful imprisonment and a man from a family considered to be outsiders in the community, not only geographically but also socially and intellectually. Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey also finds himself tragically entangled in the web of justice, having admitted to assisting Avery in the rape and murder of Halbach under highly pressured circumstances that confused and encouraged the then teen to present a testimony that the courts wanted to hear.
Who really killed Teresa Halbach? Whilst the documentary clearly champions the innocence of Avery and Dassey, it is up to each of us to decide what we believe. Was false evidence planted? Were Manitowoc just trying to lock up the ‘people’s favourite’? It remains to be seen. After the series’ hugely popular defence attorneys Dean Strang and Jerome Buting went on tour discussing the case, the world of social media has been assisting their cause by highlighting findings in the show’s evidence that had previously gone unnoticed. A second series came out in 2018 with star lawyer Kathleen Zellner now representing Avery. Read our interview with Making a Murderer director Laura Ricciardi.
MH370: The Plane That Disappeared (2023)
The sudden unexplained disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 – and all 239 passengers onboard – captivated and horrified the world back in 2014, and almost a decade later Netflix released a three-part documentary series that promised to “delve into one of our greatest modern mysteries.” And delve they did, exploring potential theories that ranged from the tragic to the absurd, with many calling the documentary out for promoting ludicrous conspiracy theories. If you can stomach some of the more unsavoury theories posited, it’s a fascinating series, shining a light on an as-yet-unsolved mystery that leaves the victims’ families still searching for answers.
November 13: Attack on Paris (2018)
On the night of 13th November 2015, several men carried out the deadliest terrorist attack in Paris’ history, with suicide bombers and gunmen targeting the Stade de France stadium, several restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. This documentary uses testimony from 40 survivors and emergency service workers who responded to the various scenes of devastation to give a brutal picture of the events as they unfolded. The three-part series is terrifying, certainly, but also inspirational thanks to the victims’ resilience, using the opportunity to tell their stories as a means of honouring lost loved ones, resulting in some unexpectedly hopeful moments in amongst the horror.
Team Foxcatcher (2016)
This documentary explores the truth story of wealthy sport enthusiast John Du Pont who created a facility to train wrestlers to compete in the Olympics, but who was also a paranoid egotist who went on to murder world champion wrestler Dave Shultz. The story of ‘team foxcatcher’ (named after Foxcatcher farm where he set up the facility) was told in the 2014 movie Foxcatcher starring Steve Carrell as Du Pont, Mark Ruffalo as Dave Shultz and Channing Tatum as Dave’s brother Mark. Mark doesn’t appear in this doc but Du Pont does, as does Dave, while his wife Nancy, who lived at the Foxcatcher facility with Dave, provides an entry point.
Footage of Du Pont is chilling and anecdotes from other wrestlers who lived there before (and in some cases after) Schultz’ 1996 murder provide a picture of a delusional obsessive and a window into a relationship gone wrong that ended in tragedy.
Tell Me Who I Am (2019)
This brilliant but at times troubling documentary explores the strange story of twins Alex and Marcus Lewis. Alex was in a car accident at age 18 which erased all of his memories. His brother Marcus helped Alex’s rehabilitation including filling him in on his lost childhood. But there’s a twist. What Marcus told Alex wasn’t exactly true…
We don’t want to spoil the arc of this incredible story but it’s an emotional journey for the brothers as they are brought together in their fifties to confront things they had been avoiding for many years. It’s a story of brotherly love, with an impossible dilemma at its core and some very dark (and possibly upsetting for some viewers) family secrets in the background. This is a Netflix must-watch.
The Confession Killer (2019)
The Confession Killer was the nickname for convicted serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who gained notoriety in the 1980s when he confessed to several hundred murders, but this five-part documentary series shows that not all was as it seemed. We see how when Lucas begins confessing to an increasing number of murders, his treatment in prison improved, with law enforcement allowing him to smoke, visit restaurants and receive copious amounts of press attention, and the more he confessed, the more freedom he was seemingly allowed. The documentary dissects Lucas’ claims and the police handling of the investigations into his many alleged crimes, trying to unravel the truth of just how much of Lucas’ testimony could be trusted. It’s a fascinating look into a shocking part of US police history, with extensive footage of Lucas during the time of his confessions.
The Confession Tapes (2017-)
There are two seasons available of this highly bingeable true crime show, with each episode delving into a different case of a murder (usually) convicted on the strength of a confession that the accused maintains is false or coerced. Each ep presents possible alternative explanations of what might have happened – some more convincing than others – and each subject maintains their innocence.
Whether you’re convinced in every single instance or not, it’s a frightening look at how police work can be flawed with pressure to push for a convinction getting in the way of logic, evidence and the truth.
This one might appeal to fans of true crime podcasts in particular – it’s comparable in format to some of the better anthology shows, There’s also hope that shining a light on some of these cases might actually effect change in the justice system.
The Girl in the Picture (2022)
The twists and turns this documentary takes are truly jaw-dropping. Without spoiling anything, we can safely say that the subject of the film, Sharon Marshall – who, as we learn in the film’s opening seconds, was sadly found dead in 1990 in Tampa, Florida – is far from the person we initially think she is. The gnarly task of unravelling her life to find the truth of her identity is masterfully done by director Skye Borgman, and while the discoveries we make are pretty heartbreaking, it’s also a worthy testament to a life cut short in tragic and troubling circumstances.
The Great Hack (2019)
Complicated and alarming investigation into the company Cambridge Analytica who were instrumental in providing data and targeting voters in both the Trump election and for the Leave campaign for Brexit. It begins with a professor called David Carroll trying to find out what data Cambridge Analytica had on him and escalates to become a slightly nightmarish question of whether it will ever be possible to have a fair election again. Though there’s some accountability by the end, it’s a drop in the ocean which doesn’t bode well for the future.
A fascinating, if occasionally dense documentary for anyone interested in data rights that’ll almost certainly make you want to get off Facebook for good.
The Keepers (2017)
Addictive documentaries series which investigates the murder of nun Cathy Cesnik in 1969, who was a teacher at a school in Baltimore. Two of her former students, now grown up, drive the narrative which grows into a wider conspiracy relating to the systematic cover up of sexual abuse of students by priests.
An increasing dark tale, with no clear or satisfying resolution, hope comes from former students Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Fitzgerald Schaub who are absolutely tenacious in their pursuit of the truth in a case that could otherwise have been swept under the carpet. A tough watch but worth it. Check out our review of The Keepers.
The Puppet Master (2022)
If you pitched what happens in The Puppet Master as a film or novel, you’d be laughed at: it’s just too absurd to be believable. Things like that don’t happen in real life. Except they do, and they did, and worse than that, the man behind them appears to be still at large. British conman Robert Hendy-Freegard has travelled the world leaving behind a multitude of victims, using multiple identities and outlandish scenarios (he’s an MI5 officer, he’s on the run from the IRA, and – if you can believe it – even worse lies than that) to coerce people into handing over their life savings. The Puppet Master really has to be seen to be believed, and the frustrating near-misses and failings by authorities to bring him to justice will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The Staircase (2004 – 2018)
True crime fans will likely be familiar with this unusual documentary mini-series which precluded Serial and Making A Murderer and focused on one particular crime and a possible miscarriage of justice. It tells the strange story of Michael Peterson, whose wife Kathleen is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their house, apparently from a fall. Or was it? Odd circumstances surrounding the death, blood spatter patterns and some weird coincidences from Michael’s past turn the spot light on to him, but as the tag line goes: “Did he do it?”.
Originally a French production which premiered on Canal+ the original miniseries aired on BBC4 as part of it’s Storyville series. Netflix now has the original eight episodes from 2004 plus two from 2013 and three airing for the first time in 2018 bringing the case right up to date. It’s a fascinating and highly emotional case packed with twists and turns – including this theory involving an owl which is sort of weirdly plausible.
The Tinder Swindler (2022)
This utterly compelling three-part documentary series thrust one of the most shameless scam artists into the world’s spotlight, with one gasp-inducing detail after another being revealed by his myriad of female targets, all of whom he’d found via the dating app Tinder. The series was made possible thanks to the honest, brave testimony of many of the women he’d manipulated, who give first-hand accounts of how he’d initially romanced them with convincing affection and generosity, before things took a gradual and disturbing turn into altogether more sinister territory. But these women are far from victims, and we also see their determined attempts to bring Simon Leviev to justice.
Trainwreck: Woodstock 99 (2022)
If you thought the Fyre Fest documentaries were shocking, wait until you learn what happened at the 1999 Woodstock festival in New York. Three days of mismanagement, poor conditions and lacklustre security culminated in a chaotic string of incidents including widespread sexual assault, vandalism and escalating violence, which ultimately led to dozens of arrests and several fatalities. This three-part documentary series recreates the shameful and often horrifying incidents that unfolded over the course of the weekend, using testimony from concertgoers, staff, journalists covering the event and even some of the acts who performed, including Korn frontman Jonathan Davis and DJ Fatboy Slim. It’s a jaw-dropping look at one of the most disastrous music festivals of all time.
Turning Point (2021)
This is so much more than a 9/11 documentary. Told across five episodes, it does indeed begin with chilling accounts of the horror that unfolded on September 11th 2001, and expands into a fascinating look at how George W Bush and the US government responded to the attacks in real time, but then Turning Point casts its net far wider, examining the knock-on effects in intelligence gathering, in the War on Terror, and how the attacks themselves have roots far earlier than any of us had imagined. It’s a comprehensive look at how events in the early 21st century changed the world irrevocably and an important account of a period of history we shouldn’t forget.
Waco: American Apocalypse (2023)
In 1993, the world watched as an police-raid-gone-wrong at the compound of a religious cult called the Branch Davidians led to a deadly gunfight, followed by a 51-day siege that ended in substantial loss of life. This three-part series is an in-depth account of what happened, with testimony from police, former cult members, their families and the press, and some truly shocking footage thanks to the massive media presence throughout the incident. While there are some details left out, particularly concerning the origins of the cult and the aftermath of the siege, it’s a gripping and thorough account of the event itself, with particularly disturbing insight into just how strong a grip a cult leader can have on its followers.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
If you’re fascinated by cults, check out this six-part series exec produced by mumblecore darlings Mark and Jay Duplass. It tells the story of spirutual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who sets up a massive retreat in a small town in Oregon in the early 1980s, much to the unhappiness of the people who lived there.
As Rajneeshpuram (the name of the city where the Rajneeshees lived) grows and grows to become a self governing state, tensions increase with the locals who are initially suspicious of the Rajneeshee’s ways (free love and nudity went down badly). But rather than peacefully acquiescing, the Rajneeshees swelled in number, wealth and power until things eventually turn violent. It’s an extraordinary story of corruption and power struggles within the cult as well with the locals that has to be seen to be believed. Check out our Wild, Wild Country review.