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15 of the best documentaries everyone should see

Check out some of the best documentaries in film and TV history selected by The Big Issue's resident culture vultures.
David Attenborough's Life On Earth is one of the all-time great documentary series. Image: BBC

The late, lamented cultural theorist Neil Postman may not have been keen on even the best documentaries. He claimed the whole idea of expressing big socio-political ideas through visual media like film and television, which are by their very nature forms of entertainment, was flawed. It was seen as symptomatic of a decline of seriousness in society, diluting the public conversation as entertainment and titillation replaced proper debate.

Was he right? Well, while it’s hard to argue with some of Postman’s conclusions – he had an astonishing ability to see into the future of the media landscape (do check out Amusing Ourselves To Death) – all of the films listed here provoke debate and offer enlightenment on a big story, the world we live in, or the people and communities we share it with. So turn on, tune in and wise up…

The 13th

Ava Duvernay’s Oscar-nominated film 13th is a clear-eyed and full-hearted evisceration of the US criminal justice system’s overt and cynical incarceration of black Americans in order to prop up the capitalist system. This is global storytelling for the mass audience. And its power, when used by skilled and effective filmmaking practitioners is immeasurable.

Few documentaries are able provoke such a strong reaction as 13th, which combines stunning filmmaking with skilful storytelling that means complex arguments are teased out, examined and explained without ever slowing down the film’s momentum. Duvernay’s film was nominated for an Oscar and is available worldwide via Netflix, where it will remain for years to come – ensuring its audience grows bigger and wiser. Available now on Netflix

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Grey Gardens

One of the greatest films in any genre, directed by Albert and David Maysles, Grey Gardens is a tender, open-hearted portrait of eccentricity and love in isolation. The film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1975, follows reclusive former socialites Edith ‘Big Edie’ Beale and her daughter Little Edie (cousin of Jackie Onassis) in the crumbling glamour of their home, which lends its name to the film. The increasing squalor of their day-to-day existence is juxtaposed with their monied, storied pasts in a warm, celebratory film in which Big Edie and Little Edie tell their story, their way and give zero f***s what anyone thinks. Handheld and from the Heart is how the Maysles describe their filmmaking technique – and here they are very much part of the story, their subjects always performing, albeit with an endearing lack of self-consciousness. Beautiful.

Life On Earth

The landmark 1979 series that established David Attenborough as the voice of the natural world. Attenborough and the BBC’s Natural History Unit pioneered a new style of wildlife documentary, blending cutting edge cinematography with globe-spanning stories and brand new insight. The series charted the evolution of this living planet – from the first fossilised signs of life to the playful gorillas in Rwanda, with whom Attenborough shared a memorable close encounter via remarkable footage of invertebrates and coral reefs. All life is here. A genre-defining, groundbreaking triumph. Available now on BBC iPlayer

Paris Is Burning

Stunning social history realness as Jennie Livingston’s legendary film charts the golden age of New York’s ball culture in the late 1980s, exploring issues around gender, sexuality and race and interviewing key players from the city’s drag scene. Set against the backdrop of the Aids epidemic, Paris Is Burning is a vital document of the end of an era as the extravagant weekly balls celebrated drag culture, offered resistance through the gay and trans community’s colourful and heartfelt rituals and keeps the memories of so many people who died too young alive. One of the best documentaries ever – absolutely essential viewing.

Up series

A longitudinal study of the British class system, spanning more than half a century, this groundbreaking documentary series is one of the greatest pieces of television this country has produced. It began with Seven Up! in 1964, with 20 children from different backgrounds visiting London Zoo before 14 were chosen to represent the full spectrum of the class system and followed by cameras to record their lives, attitudes, hopes and dreams. Every seven years, they would be revisited – with Michael Apsted, an assistant on the original series, taking over as director from 1970’s Seven Plus Seven through to 2019’s 63-Up. Over the years, we followed their lives as careers, relationships, attitudes and situations changed and evolved – and they also spoke about living their lives through Apted’s lens in a way that foreshadowed so much about today’s reality television. Compelling, life affirming social history. Available now on BritBox

Man On Wire

The image of Philippe Petit walking on a high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 1974 is astonishing. And this 2008 documentary about the precision planning and incredible, spine-tingling execution of this feat of breaking and entering and balancing is equally arresting – with Petit himself the calm at the centre of the storm. One of the great victimless crimes, captured on camera, and retold in stunning detail – what a caper. What a movie. Available to rent via Amazon Prime

I Am Not Your Negro

Raoul Peck is a serious man. A filmmaker with a background in activism and academia. And his 2017 [TBC] film is an uncompromising documentary using the words and works of playwright and essayist James Baldwin to present uncomfortable truths about race in the USA. Ten years in the making, Peck’s Oscar-nominated film uses Baldwin’s never-completed book on the lives and deaths of Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers as its jumping off point – but his skilful direction and brilliantly chosen archive and pop culture clips show us that history is repeating, and that Baldwin’s words are as important as ever. Rent from BFI Player

In Bed With Chris Needham

The best music documentary ever? Well, In Bed With Chris Needham is, for many of us, certainly in the top one. Aired as part of BBC2’s Teenage Diaries strand in 1992, this one-off film became an overnight sensation, talked about in hushed tones in schools and colleges throughout the land the next day. Chris Needham was the eponymous star of the show, a 17-year-old metaller from Loughborough who wanted to start a thrash band and filmed his life. So much teenage angst, so much heartfelt wisdom, and delivered with the kind of lack of irony or self-consciousness that would never have survived into the social media age – with the crowning glory the debut gig by Manslaughter. Watch the majesty of Chris Needham’s rock doc on YouTube today

My Octopus Teacher

Marrying the Cousteau tradition of celebrating the other with an impassioned plea for us to connect to nature for mutually beneficial results, My Octopus Teacher sees South African filmmaker Craig Foster, dealing with mental health struggles, begin diving in the same spot near his home. One day he had a close encounter with a remarkable octopus.

Documenting the triumphs and tragedies of this extraordinary cephalopod became an obsession. He returned to the same spot every day for over a year and the footage is jaw-droppingly astounding. Not only will My Octopus Teacher change your view on what intelligent life on Earth truly means, but it is also one of the most moving, heartening and heartbreaking love stories over caught on film. Yes, really. Watch now on Netflix

March of The Penguins

The greatest film about parenthood since records began? Maybe. The 2006 Best Documentary Feature Oscar winner tracked prospective penguin parents over their arduous journeys between the ocean and breeding lands, showcasing their unique ability to navigate the tough conditions and terrain – and distances up to 100km, locate their mate, and protect the precious penguin egg from the elements. So much drama, so much love, so many penguins.

Fire In Babylon

The sports documentary has been revived and re-energised in recent years. Stevan Riley’s film Fire in Babylon is ostensibly about cricket – but it puts the triumphant, all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 80s into the context of post-colonial politics with great skill. The result is a film of righteous fury and huge importance, showing the team’s success as a source of black pride for the Windrush generation and their children in Britain, who faced racism at home. Available to buy or rent from Amazon

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer was the most compelling, adrenalised and immersive true crime story, ending with as many questions for us as viewers as for the law enforcement officers of Manitowoc County and Minnesota’s judiciary system. This ten part series was a gamechanger for long-form documentary. Almost a podcast in a TV series clothing. Like more recent hit, Tiger King, it also asked increasingly difficult questions of the audience. Why were we watching – were we complicit in a form of misery porn or active in a project shining a light on failings in the US justice system? And are we being manipulated and coerced by the filmmaker’s narrative – by what they choose to leave on the cutting room floor as much as by the evidence with which they present us? Still, few who watched the early episodes and felt the surge of rising injustice will forget. Available now on Netflix

OJ: Made In America

A stunning seven-hour documentary series looking at the rise and fall of an American sporting hero through the lens of race and fame – investigating how and why the former Gridiron star was acquitted for the brutal murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. The series builds up a picture of OJ Simpson as a cultural icon and examines his trial in the context of the racial politics of Los Angeles at the time, coming in the wake of the dismal failure to convict any of the police officers that had so viciously and so publicly beaten Rodney King in 1991. The definitive documentary about one of the most notorious court cases of recent times. Available now via BBC iPlayer

Finding Vivian Maier

The incredible story of an unassuming Chicago nanny whose stash of more than 100,000 photographs was discovered years after her death – leading her to be acknowledged as one of the greatest photographers of the last century. The life and work of a secret social historian and documentarian, who walked the streets of Chicago and New York apparently unnoticed, and captured street life, community life, lives on the margins with such skill and vision.

For Sama

Waad al-Kateab’s remarkable film records what it was like to not only live through the siege of Aleppo but to give birth and raise a baby. Where al-Kateab’s film differs from other war documentaries is that during the siege she became a mother. Bombing, violence and massacres contrast with the hope that new life brings, underlining the fragility of it all. The film is half apology, half explanation for Sama about why the family stayed in Aleppo. The film won The Broadcasting Press Guild Award for best single documentary in 2019. Watch it now on All 4

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