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, these 22 titles offer a powerful and varied documentary experience.
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.
Hail Satan? (2019)
Fascinating and inspiring documentary about The Satanic Temple, a Satanist group established in America as a kind of distruptive, political activist group who offer an alterntive perpective to Christian teachings and challenge religious preference. Not theistic (as in they don’t actually worship Satan, or indeed any deity) and led by the intelligent and charismatic Lucien Greaves, the doc compellingly explains what this brand of Satanism stands for – essentially open mindedness, inclusivity, scientific knowledge but also rebellion and protest.
One of the Temple’s ongoing projects is protesting 10 Commandments monuments being erected on capitol grounds by applying for permission to put up their own statue of Baphomet (an application they pledge to withdraw if the Ten Commandments statue is denied). Essentially it’s one of a number of cheeky examples of how the Temple is using the US’s own laws to expose its hypocrisy.
Funny and eye opening, it’s a sympathetic doc about a controversial new ‘religion’ built from something that was essentially a joke. Check out our Hail Satan? review.
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 Netflix’s new must-watch.
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.
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.
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.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)
Think you know Ted Bundy? You don’t until you’ve seen this extraordinary 4-part documentary from Joe Berlinger who also directed the feature film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile starring Zac Efron which premiered at the Sundance film festival this January. (Check out our review of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile).
The doc 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.
A must-watch for anyone even vaguely interested in true crime, by the end of the Bundy seems like the purest distillation of what we think of as a serial killer (while at the same time looking and sounding nothing like what we think of as a serial killer). Well loved in the community, intelligent, a law student, a hit with the ladies, a father, a church goer, Bundy also confessed to murdering 30 women in America in the 70s. This bit most of us know, but this doc is packed with surprises, revelations and context. Fans of Mindhunter should defintely check this out.
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.
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.
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.
In the early ’90s, young filmmaker Sandi Tan and her friends shot hours of footage across Singapore for their surrealist student film. Then their mentor stole the film and disappeared. This documentary tells the strange and unexpected story of what happened to Tan’s work and how she finally recovered it.
Shirkers is a tale of thwarted artistic expression and the strange tricks that the world can pull on us.
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.
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.
Holy Hell (2016)
William Allen presents invaluable footage from his time spent in the ‘Buddhafield’, a community centred around meditation that began in West Hollywood, California in the 1980s. Having left home when his mother refused to accept his homosexuality, Will joined his sister at an idyllic commune where people loved, laughed and shared everything. In a series of illuminating interviews from former members of the Buddhafield, the community is described as a Heaven on Earth; a place where charismatic leader Michel shared in their fun and offered them ‘the knowing’, an intense religious experience where they could experience God in a way that they had never encountered Him before.
Through the lens of the community’s videographer, Allen, disturbing revelations are gradually brought forth; accounts of Michel’s unusually childish attitude to sex, his conduct towards male members behind closed doors, his increasingly alarming obsession with physical perfection and the stage productions that were arranged to appease his maniacal ego. Holy Hell may begin with a somewhat cringeworthy voiceover from the soul-searching filmmaker, but the film ultimately provides one of the most accessible accounts of joining a cult: how easy it is to believe that you are not being brainwashed and how difficult it can be to leave the place you spent so many of your formative years, even when it is built on lies. This is one of the scariest examples of how cult leaders operate; the Buddhafield initially appears no different to a summer camp or group retreat, the likes of which you may have even experienced yourself, and so by the time the charismatic leader steps in he already has you. Hook, line and sinker.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
The Confession Tapes
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.
Dirty John, The Dirty Truth (2019)
First there was the podcast, then there were the dramatisation starring Eric Bana and Connie Britton (which is available to watch on Netflix too) and now there’s also this documentary exploring the strange story of charismatic conman John Meehan. The story is fascinating and bizarre. Initially coming across as the perfect guy, Meehan convinced affluent business woman Debra Newell to marry him, alienating her daughters who were less than convinced. Things rapidly grow darker leading to a shocking conclusion – yes we’re being euphemistic! Spoilers!
The best thing about this doc is hearing, and seeing, the real people involved including Debra and her daughter Terra. It is a slightly furstrating watch however – clearly made for US TV (which would have included frequent ad breaks) it’s quite repetitve in the edit with unnecessary recaps coming thick and fast in a ‘I know! You just said that!’ kind of way. Still, if you’re fascinated by the case this adds another layer to delve into.