Documentaries are one of my favourite kinds of films, whether they’re exploring a subject that I’m already drawn to or introducing me to a topic about which I know nothing. Luckily Netflix has proven a more than decent resource for docs and at this very moment have some fantastic ones available. Here’s a list of 10 such docs well worth your time.
Note: This list refers to the UK region of Netflix.
Ava DuVernay impressed mightily with her Oscar-winning Martin Luther King Jr. “biopic” Selma a couple of years back. She followed that up with this masterful documentary that looks at the U.S. prison system and its history of systemic, institutional racism. Illuminating facts such as a quarter of the world’s incarcerated criminals are imprisoned within the U.S. is just the tip of the iceberg exposed by this essential doc that looks at everything from the Civil Rights movement to D.W. Griffith’s ever-controversial 1915 film The Birth of a Nation to the state of discrimination in today’s society and beyond. It informs you with statistics and figures but never feels like a lecture, shining a spotlight on conversations that more than ever need to be had.
A great non-fiction companion piece to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, this Oscar-winning doc from director Matthew Heineman explores the murky world of Mexican drug cartels and the vigilante groups dedicated to fighting them however they can. The inherent false equivalence of the approach niggles away as an issue, particularly as you think back over it, but it’s undoubtedly harrowing and vividly showcased viewing in the moment, particularly when you see how people put themselves in such dangerous situations in order to get the footage crucial to giving us a picture of a drug war that shows no signs of ending or offering up any easy answers.
The Hard Stop
The compelling British documentary explores the case of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man and father of six who, back in 2011, was shot and killed by armed police in Tottenham after stopping him by the side of the road using the controversial eponymous police tactic. Purportedly because he was wielding a gun despite evidence to the contrary. Documentarian George Amponsah’s hard-hitting and uncompromising film explores everything from the ensuing headline controversy, the riots that it sparked and the damaged lives of Mark’s best friends, Marcus and Kurtis, who try to battle against ongoing discrimination in getting on with their own lives as well as continuing to fight for justice for what happened to their friend. Amponsah displays a keen eye for human emotion and a shrewd way of re-illuminating a story that, since the tragedy occurred, has faded from a lot of people’s memories.
The Fear of 13
There have been many documentaries about life on death row but few I’ve seen have resonated quite so powerfully on a gut-punch and profound level. David Sington’s stylishly done and piercing film explores the story of Nick Yarris, a man who spent more than two decades on Death Row on DNA evidence that, as would later show, was flimsy at best. It’s a tremendously up-close-and-personal film, with Yarris himself writ large on-screen as he tells his incredible story, full of jaw-dropping twists and turns, in fascinating detail. The eerie opening sequence is particularly potent, as Nick describes the punishing psychological effect of the enforced deafening silence on the Death Row block.
Religion is always a hot button topic and it particularly scorches in this unflinching and oftentimes shocking documentary from directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. It takes us on a journey into the “Kids on Fire” summer camp for that teaches (or indoctrinates, depending on your viewpoint) children into becoming evangelical Christians. Crucially the documentary never takes the angle that the very idea that faith itself is a bad thing but taps into how the means by which religious information disseminated particularly to young kids can be as damaging (if not more so) than the so-called immoral behaviour to which it’s trying so desperately to prevent them from succumbing.
The Queen of Versailles
This stranger than fiction documentary follows the lives of David Siegel, the billionaire owner of timeshare Westgate Resorts in Florida, and his former beauty queen wife Jackie who embark on a mission to build Versailles, a lavish house that would be the biggest privately owned, single family home in America. But it’s about more than just showcasing the extravagant life of a super rich family; it explores the effect the U.S. economic crash (David’s business was directly tied into what caused the financial crisis) has on the family – a twist of fate thrust upon director Lauren Greenfield that turns the film into a far more complex prospect – how they need to readjust their lavish lifestyle while trying to keep up appearances as they come crashing down from the heights their wealth affords them. The colourful characters that populate the film, particularly the flamboyant woman of the title, keep things entertaining as we navigate their riches-to-rags story.
Into the Inferno
This Netflix-produced documentary by the incomparable Werner Herzog would fit perfectly into a group with his other natural world docs like Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World – it actually takes its cue from the latter as it’s where Herzog first met the volcanologist and co-director, Clive Oppenheimer, during a crucial scene. It’s an educational film but lent a purely cinematic quality, flavoured with Herzog’s signature style of fascinating insight, endearing genuine curiosity and unashamed obsession with the mystical nature of the natural world. It gives us a frighteningly up-close-and-personal look one of earth’s most ferocious natural features and the reiterates the idea that Mother Nature really doesn’t mess around.
Roger Ebert is probably the most famous and influential American film critic of all. He sadly passed away back in 2013 and this love letter of a documentary does an amazing job of showcasing what made him so special. It gives us a lifelong view of his time here on earth; his upbringing, him making headway into the world of film journalism at the Chicago Sun Times (where he would remain for the entirety of his career), his often tumultuous friendship with fellow At the Movies critic Gene Siskel, his marriage to loving faithful and loving Chaz and how he persevered with his writing despite his devastating throat cancer diagnosis that would ultimately claim his life. It’s a documentary that bowled me over when I first saw it, for its deep sense of empathy and sense of reverence for a man I, like many, held up as a hero. It’s essential viewing for those who felt the same about him or even those who have even a passing interest in film criticism as an art form.
The Look of Silence
Alongside its predecessor The Act of Killing, this documentary from Joshua Oppenheimer is one of the toughest and most harrowing docs I’ve ever seen as it further explores the sickening genocide that took place in Indonesia back in 1965-66 at the hands of so-called “death squads” who deemed the victims as Communists that needed be wiped out. Where the previous film took a more expansive and unusual approach – getting the killers themselves, years later, to reenact the crimes – this one zeroes in on one of the families affected by the devastating event. We see how a man named Adi plucks up tremendous courage to not only speak out about what happened to his brother, Ramli, but confront those who took his life, many of whom are still in positions of power. It’s never what you would call an easy watch but an essential one that makes sure you never forget its difficult subject matter.
Precinct Seven Five
This gripping and impressively detailed documentary from director Tiller Russell explores the murky and dangerous world of police corruption, particularly focusing on the case of Michael Dowd, a once-bright young New York City cop who in the ’80s morphed into one of the most corrupt in the department’s history, heading a ruthless criminal network that stole money and drugs while patrolling the city he swore to protect and serve. The film sidesteps cliches of cop corruption so often explored in fiction and non-fiction storytelling alike by painting an enthralling portrait of the individuals surrounding Dowd, each with their own angles to tell. It presents its fascinating documentary recounting with both panache and gritty authenticity.