The intention of documentaries is right there in the name: they’re made to document real life. It is the earliest genre because before movies were used to tell stories, people with movie cameras simply recorded the things happening around them. Since those early days, documentaries have changed and evolved, developing into an art form that utilizes non-fiction stories and ideas. Sometimes those stories and ideas are so shocking, amazing, and profound that they have a real life impact on society.
10. The Zeitgeist Trilogy
One of the most controversial documentary series of all time is the Zeitgeist trilogy. Throughout the three films, the director and producer, Peter Joseph, presents a number of conspiracy theories and alternative theories to major world events. The first documentary was released online in 2006 and quickly went viral. Two sequels followed, one in 2007 and another in 2011.
Some theories presented in the trilogy include the Christ Myth, 9/11 being planned by the New World Order, and that world banks manipulate society to keep people in debt. Critics of the documentary say that while the ideas presented are interesting, they are anecdotal without much evidence to back them up. But discussing the merits of Zeitgeist is a whole other conversation for another day. What is interesting is that the online documentary managed to start a religious movement of sorts. The Zeitgeist movement was set up by Joseph and it advocates transforming society and changing the economic system. There are chapters worldwide.
It may also have had a negative impact on the world as well. The film supposedly had a profound impact on a man named Jared Loughner, and helped shape his worldview. On January 8, 2011, Loughner shot U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head. She survived, but he killed six other people and injured 13 more. While we are not suggesting that Zeitgeist caused the shooting, a friend of Loughner said that the film was like “pouring gasoline onto a fire” in terms of Loughner’s personality and mindset.
9. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
In November 2001, Andrew Bagby, a likable doctoral resident living in Pennsylvania was shot to death by his former girlfriend Shirley Jane Turner. After the murder, she fled to Newfoundland, Canada, where she was arrested and released on bail. While in Canada, she revealed that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child. Upon hearing the news, Bagby’s close friend and filmmaker, Kurt Kuenne, set out to interview all of Bagby’s friends and family, so that the baby would be able to get some sense of what his father was like. Kuenne also followed the ongoing trial of Turner for the murder of his friend.
In the end, Kuenne turned the collection of interviews and coverage of the trial into one of the most heart wrenching documentaries ever made. In fact, it was so touching that after seeing the documentary, a member of the Canadian parliament representing Newfoundland drafted a bill which made it more difficult for people to get bail if it involves the wellbeing of children. It was passed into law in March of 2011.
In 2008, filmmaker Josh Fox received a letter from an energy company asking to drill for natural gas on his family’s land in Milanville, Pennsylvania, for $100,000. The family would keep the land and the company would just lease it. Using a process of horizontal drilling called hydraulic fracturing, perhaps better known as fracking, they would extract the natural gas. After getting the letter, Fox set out to record the effects of fracking on communities in America, and he found out that fracking has a whole host of environmental and health problems. Probably the most shocking footage in the documentary is a man who was able to get water running from a faucet to burst into flames.
The documentary is credited with starting the anti-fracking movement in the United States. Basically, if you’ve heard of fracking and its negative results, it is because of Gasland.
7. The Act of Killing
The Act of Killing takes a look at the Indonesian Killings of 1965-1966. The massacre left anywhere between 500,000 and one million people dead as a result of Suharto overthrowing President Sukarno. The targets of the killings were communists, leftists, and ethnic Chinese. The massacres are generally not talked about in Indonesia and the perpetrators never faced any type of justice. In fact, some of the perpetrators, including the documentary’s main subject, Anwar Congo, are considered national heroes. The directors asked Congo and other members of the death squads to do dramatic reenactments of the murders using their favorite film genres – gangster, westerns, and musicals.
To many people in Indonesia, it was an eye-opening experience. The government has always promoted anti-communism, but they never knew the extent of the massacre. For the first time in 50 years, their past, which created their present society, was being re-examined in a new light. The long term effects of the documentary have yet to be seen, but has given some viewers in Indonesia a paradigm shift in terms of their own history.
6. Making a Murderer
When you think of a pop culture phenomenon, a 10 hour long crime documentary shot over 10 years is usually not what pops into your head. Yet, Netflix’s Making a Murderer absolutely fits the bill. If you’ve never seen it and have somehow avoided the millions of people who have been talking about it, Making a Murderer is a detailed documentary about Steven Avery. Avery was originally convicted of a sexual assault in 1985, a crime he did not commit. In 2003, he was released from prison because of DNA evidence. Avery sued Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, whose police investigated the crime, and won a settlement. But while Avery was suing the county, a local woman named Teresa Halbach went missing and her burned remains were found a short time later. The last person she saw was Steven Avery. Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who is clearly developmentally delayed, were arrested and convicted of the murder. Making a Murderer makes a very strong argument that both Avery and Dassey were set up by members of the Manitowoc County police force.
Since the documentary was so popular and brought so much awareness to the case, it has had a number of real life effects. A petition was started asking for a pardon from Barack Obama, and it generated almost half a million signatures. The White House released a statement saying that since Avery and Dassey were convicted at a state level they weren’t eligible for a Presidential pardon. The series also led to Avery getting a new lawyer who is trying to find a way to appeal his case. The series has also brought a lot of attention to the plight of wrongly convicted people (though whether Avery is truly innocent is still up for a substantial amount of debate).
5. The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst
HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst investigates the shocking amount of deaths and disappearances surrounding Robert Durst, who was born into a rich New York family. In 1982, his wife Kathie disappeared and her body was never found. In 2000, just days before Christmas, his friend Susan Berman was executed in her home. Finally, in 2001, a neighbor of Durst’s in Galveston, Texas, was found dismembered. Durst was only ever charged with the murder of his neighbor, but his lawyers successfully argued it was self-defense and he was acquitted for the murder, but convicted of the dismemberment.
In 2010, the director of the series, Andrew Jarecki, had made the film All Good Things, which was based on a biography of Durst. Durst was impressed by the movie, which starred Ryan Gosling as Durst (and seriously, who wouldn’t love it if Ryan Gosling played them in a movie), and Durst got in contact with Jarecki. Eventually, over the next few years Jarecki and Durst recorded 20 hours of interviews, which was pretty amazing because Durst never spoke to journalists before.
Using the collected information, the staff of the documentary handed over their files to the police and the day before the finale was to air on March 15, 2015, Durst was arrested and charged with first degree murder in the death of Susan Berman. When the finale did air, Durst himself dropped a huge bombshell. On camera Durst says to himself, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
After the arrest, Robert Durst’s brother, Douglas Durst, thanked the show for bringing about the arrest. Douglas said that it came as a sense of relief. Most of the family had cut off ties with Durst in 1992, but they were always worried he may pop back into their lives. Douglas said he could go about his life without having to look over his shoulder for his brother.
4. Paradise Lost Series
On May 5, 1993, Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers, all 8-years-old, were reported missing from their neighborhood in West Memphis, Arkansas. The next day their bound and naked bodies were found in a drainage ditch not far from where they were last seen.
At the time of the murders, parts of America were swept up in a panic of Satanism. A genuine and prevalent fear was that teenagers were devoting their lives to Satanism and committing horrible crimes in Satanic rituals. Due to the brutality of the murders of the three boys, it led West Memphis police to think that it was the work of Satanists, and they turned their attention to Damien Echols, a troubled 18-year-old who wore all black, listened to heavy metal music, and told people he was Wiccan. They interviewed his best friend, Jason Baldwin, 16, and his acquaintance Jessie Misskelley, 17. All three of them, who became known as the West Memphis Three, were from difficult backgrounds, considered outsiders, and had minor run-ins with authorities.
After a 12-hour interrogation, Misskelley confessed to the murders. The confession was missing a lot of details and had plenty of inconsistencies, yet it was enough to convict all three young men of first degree murder. Echols was given the death sentence, while Baldwin received a life sentence and Misskelley was given a life sentence plus two 20-year sentences.
The Paradise Lost series follows the case and the 18-year imprisonment of the West Memphis Three from the arrests with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations was released in 2000 and in 2011, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory was broadcast on HBO.
The trio of films, directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, were credited with bringing a lot of attention to the case. Many artists like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp, and Peter Jackson, were empathetic with Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, whose only crime seems to be the fact that they were different than other people in their Bible Belt situated town. This led to different fundraisers to help the young men raise money for appeals and to bring awareness to the case.
In 2011, a deal was reached and Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison. They were not given pardons; instead they pleaded guilty to lesser crimes and were released because of time served. The real murderer of the three boys has never been brought to justice.
One of the most heartbreaking documentaries ever made, even if you aren’t an animal lover, is Blackfish. The film’s main subject is Tilikum, a bull orca who was born in captivity and moved to SeaWorld in 1992. What’s so notable about Tilikum is that he is responsible for the death of three people between 1991 and 2010. Besides just focusing on Tilikum, the documentary also explores the problems with keeping orcas in captivity. Orcas are, by nature, social animals. They live and hunt in pods and are able to communicate with each other. They are also harmless to people when they are in the wild. There is only one real credible case of an orca hurting a human in the wild, and the man survived. In captivity, there are four deaths connected to orcas and a dozen more people have been seriously hurt by them. Besides the mental damage caused by living in captivity, orcas living in captivity only have a life expectancy of 17-30 years, whereas in the wild they can live 50-60 years.
As a result of the documentary, attendance at SeaWorld dropped drastically and it caused SeaWorld’s stock value to decrease by half. Celebrities also took up the cause, and Pixar even altered plot points of Finding Dory because of the film. Most importantly, SeaWorld in San Diego, home of Tilikum, is phasing out live orca shows.
2. The Thin Blue Line
Just after midnight on November 28, 1976, Dallas police officer Robert W. Wood and his partner pulled over a pickup truck that didn’t have its headlights on and, more importantly, had been stolen. As Wood approached the truck, he was shot five times and the truck took off. Wood died a short time later. The investigation led back to 16-year-old David Ray Harris. When interviewed, Harris said that 28-year-old Randall Adams committed the murder. Harris had met Adams the day before after Harris picked him up in a stolen pick-up as Adams was walking to a gas station because his own car had run out of gas. The two became fast friends and on the night that Wood was shot, the pair had been at the drive-in. Harris also led the police to the stolen car and the murder weapon. With the evidence and Harris’ testimony, Adams was charged and convicted of the murder. He was given the death sentence with the execution date of May 8, 1979. Three days before he was set to die, the Governor of Texas commuted his sentence to a life sentence.
In 1985, Errol Morris arrived in Dallas to do a documentary on something else entirely. Morris met with Adams’ lawyer and became intrigued with the case because Harris, the person responsible for Adams’ conviction, had developed a long criminal record and, at the time, he was sitting on death row for another murder. Morris re-interviewed witnesses from Wood’s murder, and went over the case with Adams’ lawyer, compiling all the information into the 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line. The documentary contained reenactments of the crime and with other evidence it cast a large shadow of doubt on Adams’ guilt. Thanks to the documentary, Adams got a new trial in March 1989 and he was cleared of all charges. Meanwhile, Harris was executed in 2004 and never took credit for the murder of Wood, but he is considered the most likely suspect.
1. An Inconvenient Truth
Before An Inconvenient Truth came out, it would have been laughable to believe that a movie of former Vice President Al Gore giving a power point presentation would have made $100 million worldwide and win two Oscars because Al Gore was famous for being stiff and boring. His dull personality was even a running joke on The Simpsons. Yet, the message in An Inconvenient Truth was so shocking that it grabbed people’s attention, whether they believed Gore or not.
Those who did believe him realized that drastic changes were (and still are) needed to cut man-made carbon emissions. It led directly to Live Earth, a benefit concert with 150 musical acts that played on all seven continents to bring more awareness to the problem of man-made carbon emission. It also made people more aware of their carbon footprint, which has led to many individuals and companies trying to cut down on and offset the amount of carbon dioxide they are responsible for.