We love documentaries at WIRED and, as this list proves, there are dozens of great ones worthy of your time and attention. They are all available to stream in the UK, including some for free via YouTube, Vimeo and BBC iPlayer.
If you decide you’re not in a documentary kind of mood after all, try our lists of the best TV shows on Netflix or the best films on Netflix UK. We also have a handy list of best podcasts for curious minds if you need something new for your daily commute.
Crumb follows the famous counterculture comic book artist Robert Crumb – creator of Fritz the Cat – focusing on his influences, including his sexual life and odd family. Both his brothers struggled with mental illness and both are artists. Maxon is a sex offender who sits on a bed of nails and practices celibacy because, he says, sex triggers epileptic seizures, while Charles committed suicide after the documentary was finished. The overriding theme is clear: how thin is the line between genius and madness? You can rent it on Amazon
8 Days: to the Moon and Back
This is the story of the Moon landing, but told in a completely new way. Created by the BBC, 8 Days: to the Moon and Back uses original declassified audio from Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins as they made their trip to the Moon. In the recreation, which is a technically a “feature drama” but has enough realism to count as a documentary for this list, actors were filmed lip-synching the actual words that were said. The result? It’s a triumph and probably the closest we’ll ever get to recreating that fateful mission. Watch it here.
The latest documentary from Asif Kapadia is the third instalment in a loose trilogy – concerned with child genius and the crushing weight of fame – that includes the much-lauded Senna and Amy. Although the life of the prodigious but controversial Argentinian footballer will be familiar to most, Kapadia focuses on Maradona’s seven seasons at the Italian club Napoli during the 1980s. Celebrated as a demigod and the club’s saviour upon his arrival, the documentary follows Maradona as he finds himself buffeted by the tribalist football of mid-eighties Italy and the influence of organised crime in Naples. Maradona emerges as a sometimes charming, sometimes incomprehensible, figure forced to build a larger-than-life persona as a way of coping with the near-impossible pressures he faced on and off the pitch.
A hard-hitting and controversial documentary, which spotlights two men – Wade Robson and James Safechuc – speaking out about the sexual abuse they endured as young boys befriended by singer Michael Jackson. In a series of interviews with the alleged victims, as well as their mothers, wives and siblings, the 4-hour long film gives a wider view of the abuse and the aftermath that followed. Watch both parts on All 4.
Mothers on the Edge
Louis Theroux’s latest film for the BBC turns the lens on women suffering with mental illness brought on by childbirth. In the UK, one in five new mothers experience some form of mental health problem – including depression, anxiety and psychosis – in the weeks and months after giving birth, many for the first time in their lives. In this hour-long special, Theroux follows three patients at two specialist psychiatric units, where they live alongside their babies while receiving treatment, and recovering at home with their families. Watch it on iPlayer now.
The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer’s startling documentary is about the Indonesian genocide of 1965-6 where an estimated million people were slaughtered by so-called ‘death squads’ in the wake of a failed coup. Unusually – and somewhat controversially – the film closely follows the life of Anwar Congo, the leader of one of the country’s most powerful death squads who, at the time of filming, was still influential in Indonesian politics. Throughout, Oppenheimer asks Congo to recount the killings – many of which he personally perpetrated – and gives him free reign to turn them into films, which results in bizarre gangster, Western and musical scenes. Watch it on Amazon Prime now.
A House Through Time
David Olusoga returns for a second series of A House Through Time, which takes the novel and fascinating approach of exploring recent British history through the residents of a single dwelling. This time, Olusoga is in his native Newcastle unpicking the rich and complex history of 5 Ravensworth Terrace, an apparently unremarkable townhouse with a surprisingly scandalous history. Olusoga’s engaging narration effortlessly navigates centuries of personal and national history to explain how the stories of the very small can actually be the stories of the very big. Watch it on BBC iPlayer.
Where Dreams Go To Die
By now, you’ve possibly seen the The Barkley Marathons documentary on Netflix. The race is a 100-mile (ish) ultramarathon through the hills of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, that only a handful of people have ever finished. Where Dreams Go To Die follows the attempt(s) of runner Gary Robbins to cross the finish line inside 60 hours. It goes behind the scenes of Robbins’ intense training and gives a gritty account of his desire to cross the line. Watch it on YouTube.
Blue Planet and its sequel, Blue Planet II, are David Attenborough at his best. The broadcaster and film production crews explore all of the world’s aquatic features, diving to the deepest points on the planet and looking at how water has impacted the metropolitan cities millions of people reside in. Other episodes include an exploration of our frozen (and melting) seas, coral reefs, plus how animals hunt. Watch series one and series two on the BBC’s iPlayer.
Art and Craft
Art forgery is a lucrative game, but the chances of getting caught have shot up with new technology, better databases and growing expertise. Mark Landis, a prolific art forger, was caught donating his forgeries to museums across the US, and one determined registrar had set out to catch him. Full of tiny twists and turns, at once easygoing and exacting, Art and Craft is a compelling look at what we call art, as well as the life of Landis, who morphs into an unlikely protagonist. However, it’s hard to come away feeling like you know the whole story, and odds are you’ll fall down a rabbit hole of Googling after you’ve finished the documentary. Available on Amazon Prime
Welcome to Leith
With a population of just 16 people, you couldn’t find many quieter towns than Leith, North Dakota. That was until the neo-Nazis moved in, buying up plots all over the place and trying to turn the sleepy town into a haven for white nationalists. Welcome to Leith follows what happens when an insular town is torn apart by one hateful man determined to carve out an ideological enclave in a deeply impoverished corner of America. Watch it on Amazon Prime now.
Real Scenes: London
Although Resident Advisor may be better known for its music reviews, it often produces stunning documentaries that explore emerging issues in music. This documentary, focusing on the music scene in London, examines the pressures of sanitisation, gentrification and rising prices within the creative industries. It takes a look at some of the campaign around saving Fabric, the superclub hit by drug-related scandals in 2016, and interviews figures from all over the industry, from DJ’s , to producers and financiers behind some of the most well known clubs and venues in the city. It offers a glimpse into how one of the world’s largest music scenes has found itself in such turmoil, and demonstrates what it has to lose. Watch it here.
Waco: Madman or Messiah
This two-part documentary about David Koresh, the charismatic leader of a sect in Texas, is, in equal parts, terrifying and gripping. Koresh joined a religious group at the Mount Carmel Centre in Texas, which he splintered and led to become the Branch Davidians, a cult-like Christian sect which revered Koresh as the manifestation of God himself. Koresh forbids intercourse between members of the Branch Davidians, impregnates more than 20 underage girls as tensions escalate between the Branch Davidians and US law enforcement, ending in the infamous Waco siege.
Fans of Netflix’s Wild, Wild Country would be enthralled by this documentary series, but the use of countless hours of historical footage, and interviews with former Branch Davidians is likely to be interesting for newcomers too. Watch part one and part two.
My Kid Could Paint That
Abstract art is often met with the common refrain, my kid could paint that, and when 4-year-old Marie Olmstead’s paint splattered canvases were hailed by critics as prodigious masterpieces, some critics in the art world weren’t entirely convinced. This documentary follows the journey her parents underwent after a Channel 4 broadcast accused them of fraud, and what steps they took to try and prove that they were telling the truth. One of the best scenes comes towards the end, when an art collector sizes up what Marie Olmsted paintings are worthy of being bought. Regardless of whether you’re convinced of the toddler’s artistic abilities or not, it’s a fascinating look at what lengths people can go to for their families, as well as the consequences of one too many white lies. Available on Amazon Video.
Citizenfour documents the NSA spying scandal of 2014, concerning Edward Snowden’s leak of classified documents around the US’s secret surveillance agency, in real time. Laura Poitras, a documentary filmmaker, had been examining the use of monitoring systems in the US post 9/11, and received an email from someone called “Citizenfour” who thought they would be able to help. Citizenfour turned out to be Snowden. The documentary covers the initial meetings between Poitras, Snowden and The Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan McAskill, as well as the aftermath of the media coverage, and what happened next to all the people involved. Citizenfour is a stark look at one of the most controversial news stories of recent years, as well as the consequences for anyone caught in the net. Watch it on YouTube and Google Play
Louis Theroux’s Altered States
Twenty years since Louis Theroux awkwardly appeared on our screens with the sublime Weird Weekends, the documentarian is back with a three-part series exploring the changing ways we raise children, how we love and how we die. In the first episode, Theroux explores polyamorous relationships and the tensions and opportunities they create. Next, he meets people who have chosen to take their own lives either through lethal, but legally prescribed, overdoses, or with the help of a group that provides information on how to commit suicide. Finally, he explores the world of open adoption and the huge emotional strain it puts on birth mothers, adoptive parents and the children involved. Watch it now on BBC iPlayer.
Ryuichi Sakomoto: Coda
Ryuichi Sakomoto is a prolific musician, spanning his cross-genre career over four decades. After a cancer diagnosis, Sakomoto’s return to music drew on themes like loss and death, both of which are explored compellingly in this hour-long feature. While the documentary focuses on how he views the world and his role in it, it’s also a moving look at the creative process of someone who has already given a great deal to a fast-changing industry. While it’s quite serious, it’s an engaging look at a figure who normally prefers to remain in the shadows. Available on iTunes
A short documentary made for The Guardian, Roxy Rezvany’s feature on a North Korean refugee and his struggle to settle into London makes for compelling viewing. Examining Joong-hwa Choi’s life in six quick sections, the documentary looks at the process of re-settling in the UK, as well as what it means to integrate into British culture. Watch on YouTube (or above).
Three Identical Strangers
In the early 1980s, Bobby Shafan went to college, only to find people greeting him by another name. He quickly found out he had a twin who he had been separated at birth from, and together they found a third brother. While their unexpected reunion gained publicity, the real story behind why they were separated in the first place started to come to light. Three Identical Strangers is unsettling because of how quickly it becomes something very different from the light-hearted romp that it could have been, and perhaps because of how it ends. Watch on Amazon, or iTunes.
Russia with Simon Reeve
At a time when Russia is constantly in the news, intrepid documentarian Simon Reeve takes a trip across the vast country in an attempt to tell the story of its remarkable and varied people. Starting in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, across three episodes Reeve travels through incredible wilderness, meeting Cossacks and Tuvan throat singers and even a man some believe to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. All the while the film crew are pursued by Russian authorities who attempt to control what they show of parts of the country rarely seen by outsiders. Watch it now on BBC iPlayer.
In a beautiful combination of conceptual art and activism, Chinese director Ai Weiwei sets out on the ambitious mission of depicting the plight of the more than 65 million people who have been forced to escape their home around the world because of famine, climate change and war. From the Greek island of Lesbos to Syria, Weiwei’s work tells human stories of displacement and separation with a poignant aesthetic that acts as a wakeup call. At times heartbreaking and at others inspiring, it is a 21st century must-watch. Find it on Amazon Prime.
The Central Park Five
In 1989, 28-year-old Trisha Meili was assaulted and raped while joking in New York’s Central Park. Director Ken Burns documents the collective racial hysteria that infected every corner of society, including journalists, police and lawmakers, and led to the conviction of five young black men – a decision that flew in the face of a large body of evidence pointing in the opposite direction entirely. A searing indictment of racial injustice and a broken justice system, Burns’ documentary won a raft of awards upon its release including a Peabody in 2013. Watch it on Amazon Prime.
Louis Theroux: LA Stories
Veteran documentary maker Louis Theroux explores the unseen parts of America’s second-biggest city in this three part miniseries. Theroux gets to know sex offenders, delinquent dog owners and people who are quite literally on the very edge of death in this wide-ranging and emotive trio of episodes. As with all of his documentaries, LA Stories is at its best when Theroux lets us step beyond the bizarre or shocking surface of his subjects’ stories and invites us into their lives to truly understate their hopes and motivations. Watch it on Netflix.
All or Nothing
Manchester City’s 2017-2018 premier league season was record breaking: the club set a new points total (100), the most wins (32), and most goals (106). This controversial documentary – called “disrespectful” by Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho – goes inside the club’s season. Players are followed off the pitch, inside the dressing room and there’s footage of Pep Guardiola’s animated team talks across the season’s eight episodes. Watch it on Amazon Prime Video.
World’s Scariest Drug
VICE’s documentary explores a strange and powerful drug called Scopolamine, also known as “The Devil’s Breath”. The effects of this drug are so potent that is has been described as rendering a person incapable of exercising free will. The film explores the unimaginable horror stories of those affected by Scopolamine, and after listening to only a few firsthand experiences, it takes an even darker turn than you could have originally anticipated. Watch it on Youtube.
When Shannon Whisnant buys a cut-price barbecue grill at a storage unit auction, he ends up with a little extra in the bargain: a mummified human leg. Whisnant, seizing an opportunity to achieve his dream of making it as a TV personality, rebrands himself as “The Leg Man” and plans to open a roadside attraction to cash in on his discovery. But when the leg’s original owner, John Wood, finds out about Whisnant’s plans, the pair embark on a bitter battle over the lost limb that stirs up childhood rivalries and ends in a presidential bid. The result is a bizarre, hilarious but also genuinely touching documentary about messy human lives and flawed personalities. Watch it on Netflix.
Anaïs Bordier always knew she was adopted. Her parents were French, but she’d been born in South Korea before being adopted as a baby. What she didn’t know, however, was that she might have a twin sister. That’s until she stumbles across a YouTube video of an LA-based actor who looks surprisingly familiar. Twinsters follows the two young women as they adjust to their new lives and try to untangle the mystery behind their birth and separation. Watch it Watch it on Netflix.
An Open Secret
Directed by Academy Award nominee Amy Berg, An Open Secret lifted the lid on Hollywood’s issues with sexual harassment long before the recent revelations. Released in 2014, the documentary was seemingly suppressed by Hollywood, with no film distributors, TV networks or streaming services willing to pick it up.
An Open Secret deals with alleged and convicted instances of child abuse of young boys by talent agents and other figures involved in the industry, including the disturbing example of a dot-com bubble era online TV start-up designed to groom vulnerable child actors. Watch it on Vimeo
The fly on the wall documentary follows Anthony Weiner’s ill-advised 2013 campaign to become the mayor of New York City after resigning from Congress after a sexting scandal in June 2011. Once seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, things are going well for Weiner’s mayoral effort until details of a second sexting scandal emerge, sending his campaign, and his marriage, off the rails. Watch it on Netflix.
When Asif Kapadia released Amy in 2015, four years after the death of Amy Winehouse, it might have seemed that we’d already heard everything we could possible know about the life of the prodigiously talented singer. But Amy is a brilliant film that uncovers new ground documenting the complex web of fame, addiction and family that influenced Winehouse both before and during her rise to stardom. Most crucially, through his extensive use of archive footage, including video from her childhood, Kapadia captures the origins of Winehouse’s rare musical genius and songwriting abilities. The perfectly-pitched effort won Kapadia the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 2015 Academy Awards. Watch it on Amazon Prime Video.
Blackfish helped to change how orcas are treated at SeaWorld. In March 2016, three years after the harrowing documentary was released, the theme park agreed to stop breeding killer whales immediately. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the documentary tells the story of Tilikum, a killer whale that has been involved in numerous aggressive incidents towards humans. During the 90 minute show, its creators reveal how the powerful animals are badly kept by poorly trained handlers and against the advice of a growing body of evidence showing why orcas shouldn’t be held in captivity. Watch it on Netflix
Jim: The James Foley Story
This in-depth documentary focuses on the life and work of American conflict journalist James Foley, killed by ISIS terrorists in 2014. Foley’s childhood friend Brian Oakes directs compiling stories from Foley’s family, friends and those he was held in captivity with during his time as a prisoner of ISIS. It is a heart-wrenching, though-provoking look into the nature of conflict, the bonds between people in impossible circumstances and the overarching question of freedom. Watch it on Netflix
Fire in the Blood
Fire in the Blood describes itself as a tale of ‘medicine, monopoly and malice’. It charts the Western pharmaceutical industry’s aggressive blocking of access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries of Africa and the global south in the years after 1996, offering up a stark contrast between treatments in America compared to the rest of the world. The epidemic of AIDS has not yet gone away and continues to dominate lower income countries, despite the availability of cheap antiretroviral drugs. Watch it on Netflix
Former NFL player Steve Gleason played for the New Orleans Saints until his retirement in 2008. A few years later, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS, a rare neurodegenerative condition that gradually weakens the body’s muscles over time. The touching film follows Gleason and his family as they adapt to the condition and keep hope through even in the darkest of times. Watch it Watch it on Amazon Prime.
Here’s one for the gamers out there, especially Zelda fans. Boss Keys, a series from Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit, takes a fascinating deep dive into the dungeon design of each game in the series. He reveals how the classic formula has evolved over time in both good and bad ways. Watch it on YouTube.
Free to Play
Professional gaming is now one of the most widely-watched sports around the world. Valve Software’s documentary about the players competing for a life-changing million dollar prize in the first Dota 2 International tournament, and the real-world battles they fought to be there, is concise, compelling and well worth a watch. No foreknowledge of Dota 2 is necessary. Watch it on YouTube.
3D Printed Guns
Vice’s technology channel Motherboard put together a fascinating documentary last year on Cody Wilson – the law student who figured out how to print a semi-automatic rifle in the comfort of his own home. This documentary follows him as he builds and test-fires a 3D printed gun. Watch it on YouTube.
WIRED’s ‘Holy Land: Startup Nations’
With the most tech startups and venture capital per capita in the world, Israel has long been hailed as the ‘startup nation’. WIRED’s feature-length documentary looks beyond Tel Aviv’s vibrant, liberal tech epicenter to the Palestinian territories, where a parallel ‘startup nation’ story is emerging in East Jerusalem, Nazareth, Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, as well as in the Israeli cybersecurity hub of Be’er Sheva. We learn how the fertile innovation ecosystem of Silicon Wadi has evolved as a result of its unique political, geographical and cultural situation and explore the future challenges – and solutions – these nations are facing. Watch it on YouTube.
WIRED’s ‘Shenzhen: The Silicon Valley of hardware’
We examine the unique manufacturing ecosystem that has emerged and gain access to the world’s leading hardware-prototyping culture, while challenging misconceptions from the west. The film looks at how the evolution of “Shanzhai” – or copycat manufacturing – has transformed traditional models of business, distribution and innovation, and asks what the rest of the world can learn from this so-called “Silicon Valley of hardware”. Watch it on YouTube.
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