Most of us have had plenty of time to kill in the last few months. Some have turned to fiction during this lockdown, and others to new hobbies and workout routines. But there’s arguably no better time to reacquaint ourselves with the different dimensions of life itself. The truth today, as we know it, is infinitely stranger than fiction. Documentaries have long been my weakness. True-crime, sports, history, culture, biographies, investigative – I’ve found more or less everything on Netflix in the last couple of years. The collection is most satisfying, and I’ve derived some of my most intense “indoor” memories from non-fiction titles on this streaming platform.
Here, then, is a list of ten of my favourite documentaries – films and series – currently streaming on Netflix:
An Oscar winner for best feature-length documentary, Icarus is a tremendous example of a filmmaker breaking the fourth wall and directly affecting the journey of the subject. Director Bryan Fogel here becomes both observer and participant. He sets out to make a film on illegal doping in sports, starting as a guinea pig to prove the potency of performance-enhancing drugs – before the film dramatically changes course. To Fogel’s credit, he turns his accidental gaze into an investigative thriller, never once forsaking his own humanity in service of storytelling. The irony is that he turns this new journey into the narrative; Fogel films his own decision to protect a Russian whistleblowing doctor who exposes the state-sponsored Olympic doping program that he is in charge of. Never has the ominousness of Russia – and Putin – as the stereotypical Bond villain felt so real.
Perhaps the definitive word on America’s complicated history of institutionalized racism and police brutality, Ava DuVernay 13th came a few years before her series When They See Us reignited the same fire. Given Spike Lee’s latest film, Da 5 Bloods, and the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, 13th is both an academic dissection of history and a poignant indictment of a nation’s unwillingness to alter history. The sheer discourse of facts, voices, talking heads, perspective and brutal footage paints a complete picture of why the coloured minorities of the United States of America have been little more than pawns in the hands of politicians and administrators. The documentary is a difficult and eye-opening experience, not least because it is helmed by a filmmaker who will go down as the most important voice of a generation in dire need of artistic diversity.
The Keepers (2017)
The haunting seven-episode series by Ryan White initiated me – even more than Making a Murderer – into the world of long-form investigative documentaries. It explores the unsolved murder of a nun in Baltimore, but not unlike Spotlight, reveals a darker conspiracy at play. Every shot is framed as if there were another shot lurking behind it. The atmosphere of the town, the interviews conducted, the way the narrative moves back and forth with the stealth of a steely-eyed jackal, the construction of the revelations, the eerie soundtrack, the choice of characters – The Keepers represents the zenith of visual non-fiction storytelling. And to think, the answers were always in the title.
Wild Wild Country (2018)
The release of Wild Wild Country became a cultural moment in history. Despite plenty of books written about them over the decades, it took the characters – the real people – of Osho’s controversial cult over 35 years to become an overnight sensation in 2018. Across six startling episodes that expertly combine the chronicling of sensationalism with the luxury of hindsight, Wild Wild Country reveals a bizarre little universe in ‘80s Oregon that, for some reason, fell through the cracks of broad daylight. Rajneeshpuram, Ma Anand Sheela and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh became household names, and viewers across the globe rubbed their eyes in disbelief as a larger-than-life empire unravelled on what felt like reality-show television. The series is skillfully narrated and excellently researched; props to the makers for retelling a story that was only known as fragments of red-attired history.
The Staircase (2018)
Perhaps the finest series ever made in terms of all-round access and commitment to a subject, The Staircase is another incredible example of a filmmaker willing to go where his story takes him. French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade started filming the trial of novelist Michael Paterson – who was accused of killing his wife – way back in 2004 as a miniseries. Despite a release, Lestrade never left it there. He kept returning to record the unexpected developments in Paterson’s case through the next decade, before his entire work took the form of the 13-episode-long series in 2018. But The Staircase works best as an unsettling biography, a personality portrait of a man so used to writing fiction that he isn’t sure about the reality of his own actions. Paterson is both a gentle and mysterious protagonist, and worth every second of this 15-year project that covers the length and breadth of an open-for-all family trauma. I remember reeling from the emotional investment the series demanded from its viewers. But rarely has an immersive experience felt so disturbing and psychologically enriching at the same time.
The Devil Next Door (2019)
A retired auto worker in Cleveland is arrested in 1981 and extradited to Israel after being accused of being a former Nazi prison camp guard called “Ivan the Terrible”. The five-episode series doesn’t have the luxury of filming in real-time – it recreates an era with great perception and detail, with footage of the war-crime trial, extensive interviews and evidence files painting a heartbreaking picture of cultural trauma and paranoia. Most of all, the film educates, and refuses to take sides even when there’s reason to, impartial but all-encompassing in its gaze of an immigrant whose identity becomes a calling card to a larger epidemic of hidden ex-Nazis in the US – one that’s popularly fetishized by the Inglorious-Basterds-style Amazon series, Hunters.
American Factory (2019)
Another Oscar-winning documentary, American Factory is a rare mix of the terse and the tender. A Chinese glass-production company opens its factory at a shuttered General Motors plant in the USA, not only inheriting some of GM’s old labour force but also transferring its own local workers to the remoteness of small-town Ohio. The fly-on-the-wall film simply captures life on both sides of the bittersweet cultural clash – juxtaposing the disciplinary American-dream grit of the quiet Chinese workers with the shell-shocked but empathetic ways of Uncle Sam’s hardest. The documentary has some beautifully observed moments of quirky harmony, and provides a healing snapshot of a time before Donald Trump accused China of deliberately unleashing the “Chinese virus” onto the world.
F1: Drive To Survive (2019)
This seasonal documentary series has single-handedly revitalized an entire generation’s flagging passion for a sport. The repetition and technical nature of modern Formula One makes it an acquired taste on the best of days, especially in the post-Schumacher era. But F1: Drive to Survive has an edge over other all-access “sports” documentaries, in how it truly understands the human side of what is largely a backroom competition of egos, histories and dreams. Every episode is dedicated to a different driver/team director over the most evocative phases of a season. It’s a deceptively difficult task, to comb through the hundreds of hours of footage and identify the intimate smaller films within the larger picture. As a result, most of us F1 watchers now find ourselves invested in not just the frontrunners but also the doughty middle and backmarkers – with context, backstory and without associating a number to them. Most of us also find ourselves in the unusual position of eagerly waiting for a new F1 season only so that the next season of Drive To Survive can appear as soon as possible.
The Dawn Wall (2017)
The Dawn Wall walked so that Free Solo could run – or rather, it painstakingly planned the route so that Free Solo could scale the award-winning peak. Before Alex Honnold’s torrid romance with El Capitan came Tommy Caldwell’s abusive relationship with the titular vertical wall of Yosemite National Park. Caldwell even makes an appearance as a mentor in Honnold’s solo ascent, but his own story – captured so profoundly by the “other” rock-climbing documentary The Dawn Wall – is just as awe-inspiring. His daring attempt to scale the 3000-feet wall is framed as a testament to courage by heartbreak (a failed relationship), heart (a new climbing partner), perseverance (a missing finger) and skill. The documentary is a unique feat of filmmaking by a crew determined to capture both the limits of human endurance and the depths of human psychology.
Athlete A (2020)
Athlete A is the finest documentary of the MeToo era. By following a team of investigative reporters and delving deep into the ruthless culture of US Athletics, the film uncovers the largest sexual abuse scandal in American sports history. It doesn’t stop at the nailing of a predator doctor who has been abusing young female gymnasts for years – it zooms out, exposing a problematic ecosystem of ruthless training and Olympic-greedy male administrators. Read our full review here.
Voyeur: Famous investigative journalist Gay Talese is the focus of this fascinating documentary, as he pursues the enticing story of a motel owner who spies on his guests.
Tiger King: Widely lauded as the most successful documentary of all time, this series about the “exotic” life of an oddball zookeeper has to be seen to be believed. Read our full review here.
The Last Dance: The rousing docu-series about Michael Jordan shows a feel for moments, beats and legacy. Read our full review here.
Don’t F**k With Cats: The shocking true-crime series fluidly navigates the twists and turns of a tale featuring a viral cat-killing video and a resourceful online-vigilante group.
Fyre: With a tagline “The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” it’s no surprise that this cautionary but perversely entertaining documentary about a failed music festival and its fraudulent organizer made headlines across the world.
Amanda Knox: Her face became infamous when she burst onto screens for allegedly murdering an exchange student in Italy; the ambiguous story and trial is captured with eerie precision by this documentary.