Top 6 Most Shocking Documentaries

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Honorable Mentions: The Cove / Child of Rage / High on Crack Street

6. The Imposter (2012)

Listen to me carefully: the less you know about this documentary, the better. I went into it knowing the full story, and although it was fantastic, it was akin to watching Fight Club after having the ending spoiled. I would even go so far as to say that you should skip the trailer and watch The Imposter completely blind. Take my word for it, this is a fascinating and chilling documentary about a missing child with more twists and turns then you could ever expect. If multifaceted mysteries pique your interest, this is a must watch.

How to watch: Youtube / Netflix

Here is the film’s official synopsis for people who want to know a little bit more:

The twisting, turning tale begins with an unsettling disappearance – that of Nicholas Barclay, a 13 year-old Texas boy who vanishes without a trace. Three and a half years later, staggering news arrives: the boy has been found, thousands of miles from home in Spain, saying he survived a mind-boggling ordeal of kidnap and torture by shadowy captors. His family is ecstatic to have him back no matter how strange the circumstances – but things become far stranger once he returns to Texas.

Though the family accepts him, suspicion surrounds the person who claims to be Nicholas. How could the Barclay’s blonde, blue-eyed son have returned with darker skin and eyes? How could his personality and even accent have changed so profoundly? Why does the family not seem to notice the glaring differences? And if this person who has arrived in Texas isn’t the Barclay’s missing child . . . who on earth is he? And what really happened to Nicholas?

5. The Woman Who Wasn’t There (2012)

This is another documentary that I wish I had gone into blind, although knowing the basic plot didn’t make the story any less powerful. The Woman Who Wasn’t There focuses on the 9/11 Survivors Network and how one survivor in particular wasn’t all that she seemed. The documentary serves as an interesting look into the human desire to belong and be accepted, and how one lie can spiderweb out of control. From a mystery standpoint and a sociological standpoint, The Woman Who Wasn’t There is overwhelmingly interesting. I couldn’t unglue my eyes from the screen while watching, and I definitely recommend it if you like unsettling, people-centric mysteries.

How to watch: Netflix

Here is the Netflix synopsis:

Filmmaker Angelo J. Guglielmo Jr. discusses the truth about 9/11 “survivor” Tania Head, sharing exclusive footage from interviews shot with Head before her story crumbled to reveal a stunning circle of deception.

4. Jesus Camp (2006)

I was shown Jesus Camp in one of my LGBTQ college courses and will never forget the deafening silence that filled the room after the credits rolled. No one could believe what they had seen. Jesus Camp provides an incredibly disturbing look into the Kids On Fire School of Ministry, an Evangelical summer camp with some intense and highly controversial prosthelytizing methods. The infamous anti-Harry Potter speech comes from this film, and watching children as young as 3 thrash around and scream in gibberish, believing that they are being “touched by God,” only gets more and more disturbing as the film goes on. This documentary is heartbreaking. The children are given creationist “science” textbooks to learn from and are taught to pray for George W. Bush and his Christian efforts. The “preaching” done in Jesus Camp is as close a thing to brainwashing as I’ve ever seen, and it’s both upsetting and fascinating to watch.

How to watch: Youtube for $3. I had a hard time finding this documentary free-streaming, but it’s worth the price.

Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes.

The youngest foot soldiers for the Lord are shown in their native environment in this documentary. Becky Fischer is a children’s pastor who runs “Kids on Fire,” a summer camp for evangelical Christian children in North Dakota. Fischer believes in the political and moral importance of a Christian presence in America, and uses her camp to reinforce the religious training most of her charges are already receiving at home (the majority of the campers are home-schooled by their parents). Using videogames, animated videos, and group activities to help put her message across, Fischer encourages the kids to pray for George W. Bush and his Supreme Court appointees while urging them to help “take back America for Christ.”

3. The Bridge (2006)

For one year, director Eric Steel and a team of filmmakers camped out every morning and filmed the Golden Gate Bridge. During those 365 days, they recorded 24 people jumping to their deaths. The Bridge hones in on the families of four of the deceased, and the only known jumping survivor. Footage of the 24 suicides are interspersed throughout the interviews and, needless to say, it is incredibly strange watching people die so casually. The documentary is unreal and eyeopening. It forces you to meditate on life, death, fear, courage, and how the human psyche processes these things. I felt very disturbed after watching The Bridge, but I highly recommend it.

How to watch: Youtube (Warning: the quality is low and there are subtitles. This is the best streaming version I’ve found, however)

The Golden Gate Bridge is an iconic structure. An engineering masterpiece. A triumph of human ingenuity and muscle over the elements. A symbol of San Francisco, the West, freedom – and something more, something almost spiritual but impossible to describe.
More people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world. The sheer number of deaths there is shocking but perhaps not altogether surprising. If one wants to commit suicide, that is, there is an eerie logic in selecting a means that is almost always fatal and a place that is magically, mysteriously beautiful.

2. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Dear Zachary is an absolutely devastating documentary about the court system’s failure to protect the innocent and how the determined efforts of a few good people can make all the difference. This is another documentary that I highly recommend watching blind. The trailer will give you a good idea of what the story’s about, but I wouldn’t recommend doing any more research prior to watching it. Just know that you will cry, you will be enraged, and you will never be able to forget the Bagby’s story.

How to watch: Youtube / Netflix

Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes:

Shortly after his best friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, was slain by jealous ex-girlfriend Dr. Shirley Turner, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne was shocked to learn that Turner was pregnant with Bagby’s unborn child. Hoping to create a film that would serve as both a memorial to Bagby and an introduction to the father the boy would never know, Kuenne quickly began production on a film celebrating the life of his late friend. Traveling across the entire continental United States, Kuenne made it his personal mission to interview everyone who had ever known his best friend so their memories would be captured on camera before they faded. Meanwhile, upon learning that Turner had fled to Newfoundland, Bagby’s devastated parents uprooted their entire lives and relocated to the easternmost providence of Canada in order to fight for the future of their newborn grandson, Zachary.

1. Earthlings (2005)

Known as “The Vegan Maker” in some circles, this harrowing documentary chronicles the five ways humankind exploits animals: food, fashion, pets, entertainment, and medical research. I have only been able to sit through the entirety of this documentary once and, although I highly recommend it, don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch it again. This documentary takes an absolutely unflinching look at all types of animal cruelty. You will see animals getting their fur ripped off while they’re still alive and screaming. You will see rooms full of dogs gassed to death, lab monkeys being electrocuted for medical research, circus elephants stabbed and burned, and much, much more. Earthlings shows you everything, and though it’s incredibly difficult to watch, I can’t stress enough how important seeing it is. Earthlings is not hyperbole, it’s actual footage of how we treat animals behind closed doors, and it deserves to be acknowledged. This documentary has stood the test of time for me and remained the most shocking film I have ever watched. Definitely check it out, but be prepared to be sickened, infuriated, and wiser by the time the credits roll.

How to watch: Youtube

Here’s the film’s official synopsis:

EARTHLINGS is an award-winning documentary film about the suffering of animals for food, fashion, pets, entertainment and medical research. Considered the most persuasive documentary ever made, EARTHLINGS is nicknamed “the Vegan maker” for its sensitive footage shot at animal shelters, pet stores, puppy mills, factory farms, slaughterhouses, the leather and fur trades, sporting events, circuses and research labs.

What are some documentaries you can’t stop thinking about?

2 thoughts on “Top 6 Most Shocking Documentaries

  1. I’ve watched a few good documentaries in school recently, two of which are “Inequality for All” and “Precious Knowledge”. If you want to be mad at Amercia, I highly recommend them.

    I also just finished “Senna” because everyone always says it’s great. I didnt think I could give a shit about formula 1, but its so well made and such a great story.

    Man, I love documentaries.

    • “Senna” keeps popping up on my Netflix ‘recommended for you’ section– maybe I should actually give it a chance! Oh God, “Inequality for All” sounds like it would make me rage. Anything about the income gap gets me going. I’ll definitely have to check that one out, thank you!

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