11 Unmissable Documentaries You Can Stream Right Now
The documentary genre of filmmaking is a diverse world unto itself. Some expose truths, some offer observations on human behaviour, some show the filmmaker participating in the story they tell. Some go deep into wellness, and many add to the proliferation of true crime that dominates all modes of entertainment and provide hours of binge-worthy viewing.
The fact is, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, maybe thousands of illuminating films and docuseries available these days, telling real stories and teaching us about the world we live in. Here are just 11 of our favourites from the past decade, all streamable and all unmissable. Get cosy and press play.
Three Identical Strangers (2018)
This 2018 Sundance award-winning documentary tells the story of three brothers, separated at birth and reunited by chance years later. It's an incredible story – in that it barely seems credible – but it's completely true. The New Yorker said it best: "So bizarre is the tale that Tim Wardle tells, in his new documentary, and so unnervingly mixed the emotions that it provokes, that the less you know about it beforehand the better."
Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020)
From The Crying Game to Ace Ventura, documentary examines the representation of transgender people in film and television and how those portrayals impact the lives of transgender individuals and American culture more broadly. Executive produced by Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black), it features interviews with trans people working on screen and behind the scenes including Mj Rodriguez (Pose), Trace Lysette (Hustlers), Alexandra Billings (How to Get Away with Murder, Transparent) and Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix).
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (2019)
You don't have to be a Drag Race fan to appreciate this emotional, honest look behind the curtain on the stage that is the life of drag queen, country music artist and comedy notable, Trixie Mattel. The film follows Mattel's life after winning season three of RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars, troubled times with fellow alum Katya Zamolodchikova and a burgeoning career as a musician.
In My Blood It Runs (2019)
Where: ABC iview
In this film, documentarian Maya Newell follows 10-yr-old Arrernte boy Dujuan Hoosan, who in 2019 became one youngest people ever to address the United Nations. It looks at how the Australian education and justice systems fail Aboriginal young people. In 2018, 60 per cent of people incarcerated were Aboriginal despite making up just 5 per cent of the total youth population. Considering a statistic such as this, and the revolutionary Black Lives Matter movement that in 2020 is continuing to expose racism and injustice worldwide, In My Blood It Runs is essential viewing.
Cheer is an emotion-charged adrenaline rush that will change the way you see cheerleading forever. It is at times painful to watch, from tiny "top girls" flying through the air with fractured ribs, their faces distorted into scary smiles, to tragic stories of abandonment and death. But it's the low lows that make the highs that much higher.
Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
You might know the song, but if you haven't seen the documentary you might don't know this incredible story. Detroit-born singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez released his debut album in 1970 and a second in 1971. They both flopped in the US, and he continued his life as an unknown working manual labour jobs. Meanwhile, unbeknown to him, his music became wildly successful in apartheid-era South Africa and he became something of a folk hero.
Censorship prevented people in South Africa from learning much about him, and a rumour spread that he'd committed suicide. Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the South African fans who in the '90s set off to find the truth. It was the debut feature of Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, who suffered from depression and sadly committed suicide two years after this film's release. His only feature length documentary is one of the most successful documentaries of all time, and one of the best.
When it debuted in 2013, this award-winning documentary changed the world. Blackfish is about the killer whales kept in captivity at amusements parks. It stars Tilikum, an orca who was captured in Iceland in 1983 before being transferred to a Canadian aquarium, and finally to SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida, where he lived out the rest of his years. It's a beautifully made but incredibly sad story, so prepare yourself to feel things.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)
Where to watch: Netflix (soon) or Prime Video
Meet Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old sushi master and owner of a 10-seat Michelin three-star restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. This story is about sushi, and yet it's about so much more. It's about family and fatherhood, ritual and obsession. Jiro Dreams of Sushi will make you hungry, but it will also make you think.
Where: Netflix or YouTube (for free)
Ava DuVernay is the powerhouse filmmaker behind When They See Us and Selma. She's a beacon of light in American culture, and in 13th she examines the history of slavery in the US. You'll see interviews with prominent figures such as political activist Angela Davis and the Republican politician and 2012 presidential hopeful New Gingrich – who, amazingly, admits on camera that he regrets decisions he made while in office in that they contributed to the mass incarceration of Black people within the prison industrial complex. The film's title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865 to abolish slavery – except as a punishment for conviction of a crime.
Gayby Baby (2015)
In Gayby Baby, director Maya Newell observes the lives of four children who happen to be raised by same-sex couples. Filmed over three and a half years, this is a fly-on-the-wall film that's full of nuance but also accessible enough for the whole family to watch. Though the kids are the stars, not the parents, this is essentially a simple and honest film about four ordinary families living in a world that doesn't fully accept them for who they are.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Where: Stan or SBS On Demand
Inspired by an unfinished manuscript by novelist and poet James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro connects the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with the Black Lives Matter movement that grows louder and more urgent with every senseless, unjust act harming and killing Black people in the US and beyond. Baldwin's observations on and experiences of racism remain powerful and relevant as ever, and this documentary is a potent insight into his life – and provide context to the demands of protesters.
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