10 Surprising and Shocking Documentaries

Whether they’re on television or full-on movie theatre blockbusters, documentaries have the power not just to educate and inform, but also to shock and amaze.  These ten investigative documentaries certainly fall into the latter category!

1. The Bridge

Born out of one year’s worth of filming the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco in 2004, The Bridge is ostensibly a film about suicide, several of which were captured on tape during the filming process.  Much of the footage challenges the popular perception of suicidal individuals, including one man who was jogging, laughing and talking on his cellphone, before putting his things away and leaping to his death.  Interviews with the families of suicide victims, as well as some people whose attempts did not succeed, create a shocking picture of the world’s ‘number one’ suicide spot.

Also it should be noted that the film makers called 911 every time they captured someone who was about to commit suicide – the ones that made it into the film were the ones that the authorities were too late to catch, or that the film makers didn’t realise were going to jump.

2. Earthlings

Drawing controversy for its no-holds-barred comparisons between slavery and animal-dependent industry, Earthlings uses hidden cameras to tell the story of what really goes on inside laboratories, abattoirs, pet stores and animal shelters alike.  While the film is presented from an unashamedly vegan viewpoint (Moby, Joaquin Phoenix, Maggie Q and Shaun Monson all being involved in the project), even meat-eaters and non-vegan animal lovers will find themselves questioning the practices of industry after watching this film.

3. 102 Minutes That Changed America

Pieced together from primarily amateur footage, 102 Minutes presents a harrowing look at what occurred on September 11 2001 in New York City, from the moment the first plane hit the World Trade Center to the eventual collapse of the twin towers.  While other documentaries have examined the events of that fateful day in detail, no other has so movingly communicated the atmosphere at and around Ground Zero, from initial assumptions of an horrific accident to eventual realisation that New York was under attack.

4. Louie Theroux Behind Bars

Just one of many great works by this legendary British documentarian, this hour-long show sees Louie exploring one of the world’s toughest prisons, the infamous San Quentin maximum security jail in California.  Speaking candidly with gang members, sex offenders, serial murderers and prison guards, as well as inmates who are themselves at risk from their fellow convicts, Theroux sheds a light not only on the individuals behind the orange jumpsuits and prisoner numbers, but also on a system that will likely see most of San Quentin’s residents return multiple times.

5. Jesus Camp

You might not think there would be too much to worry about at a Christian summer camp called “Kids on Fire School of Ministry”, but you’d be wrong.  Based in Devils Lake in the rural US state of North Dakota, the organisers of this camp fervently believe that modern society is not only too secular, but irredeemably corrupt.  As such, they train camp attendees to be fully-fledged soldiers within an ‘army of God’, with exercises from pledging allegiance to the ‘Christian flag’ (rather than the plain old American one) to mass ‘praying in tongues’ sessions. Oh, and telling kids that if Harry Potter had been in the Old Testament, he would have been put to death for being a warlock and enemy of God.

6. The Cove

One of the most-watched and controversial environmental films of recent years, The Cove documents the annual dolphin hunt that takes place in Taiji, Japan.  Each year, in an effort which is closely guarded by local and national officials,  dolphins and porpoises are driven into an isolated cove and trapped there, with some captured and sold to aquariums around the world.  Those dolphins who are not sold, are then slaughtered and their meat sold in Japanese supermarkets.  While some have criticised the film’s creators for lack of neutrality and lack of consideration of cultural differences, it nevertheless won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.

7. Into The Abyss

First shown in 2011, this film by legendary German director Werner Herzog examines a triple homicide which occurred in Conroe, Texas and, more pointedly, the two men convicted of the crime.  While the film does cover the murders, the real focus is on Jason Burkett (life sentence), Michael Perry (death penalty) and the prison system itself. Through a series of interviews with prison officers, law enforcement, victims’ families and the convicted men themselves, it is a thought-provoking piece sure to make anyone question their personal views on capital punishment.

8. The Hammer Maniacs

This Chilean documentary, available on Youtube with English subtitles, explores the twisted minds behind the most shocking murders in Ukrainian history, the so-called Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs.  Killing 21 people in the summer of 2007, Viktor Sayenko and Igor Suprunyuck gained notoriety for having filmed some of the brutal murders on their phones and uploading them online, with one infamous film which showed the death of Sergei Yatzenko appearing on shock sites under the title ’3Guys1Hammer’.  Featuring excerpts from the videos itself, it is a shocking and disturbing watch.

9. The Dying Rooms

Released in 1995, this British television documentary explored one of the consequences of China’s population control measures informally known as the ‘one child policy.  With a rule allowing the conception of a second child if the first was female or disabled, parents across China sought to exploit a loophole which forgave the death of a child from neglect (as opposed to ‘directly’ killing them), and state-run ‘orphanages’ began to be established.  Within these facilities, parents would leave their children to be neglected by staff, who would leave babies and children alone without food or water until they died. The film, which was produced thanks to undercover footage obtained from within these orphanages, was televised worldwide and won the Peabody award in 1996.

10. The Act Of Killing

Perhaps the most shocking documentary on this list, The Act Of Killing was only released in 2012.  Directed by Copenhagen-based American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, the film follows Anwar Congo, an Indonesian gangster who took part in the Indonesian killings of 1965-66, an anti-communist purge in which at least half a million people were killed. Of these, Anwar freely admits that he personally murdered around 1,000 people.  Oppenheimer speaks at length with Anwar, now revered as father of a far-right paramilitary group, about the killings he carried out as a younger man, as well as inviting him to re-enact some of them in acted scenes for the cameras, with Anwar both the killer and the victim.  Rotten Tomatoes described the movie as “raw, terrifying, and painfully difficult to watch”.