If truth is stranger than fiction, then documentaries have an innate power that fiction films can only aspire to. Documentaries can entertain, charm, enlighten, and horrify more powerfully than anything Hollywood can produce. Here are ten of the most disturbing documentaries ever made, in chronological order from when they were released.
10) Faces of Death (1978)
Directed by Conan LeCilaire
Before you rush down to the comments, let me explain my reasoning for including Conan LeCilaire’s infamous Faces of Death on this list. The film, a compilation of found footage of people dying in particularly gruesome ways, does indeed feature material that was created by the filmmakers. However, approximately 60% of the footage in the film is authentic. Perhaps the most famous authentic scene of the film is footage of when a cyclist is run over by a semi-tractor trailer, spilling his guts all over the street. Many would argue that since Faces of Death includes faked content, it should be disqualified from a list of real documentaries. However, Faces of Death has nevertheless become an underground cultural phenomenon, spawning several sequels. As such, it cannot be overlooked.
9) Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984)
Directed by Werner Herzog and Denis Reichle
In addition to being one of the most successful and influential German filmmakers of all time, Werner Herzog also has a distinguished career as a documentarian. In fact, he has done so many documentaries on so many different subjects that picking just one of his films for this list was almost impossible. But I finally settled on his 1984 documentary on child soldiers in Nicaragua entitled Ballad of the Little Soldier. Only clocking in at 45 minutes, Ballad of the Little Soldier (co-directed by Herzog’s friend Denis Reichle, who served as a child soldier during World War II in the Volkssturm) contains interviews with actual child soldiers. In one of the most heart-breaking moments of Herzog’s career, he films a group of young boys dressed in military gear and holding giant rifles as they tearfully sing a song that seems to come from a happier, most peaceful time.
8) Shoah (1985)
Directed by Claude Lanzmann
Exhaustive in scope and devastating in detail, Claude Lanzmann’s nine and a half hour examination of the Holocaust is one of the most intense, harrowing, and disturbing documentaries ever made. Comprised mostly of interviews with concentration camp survivors, witnesses of the genocide, and actual German participants of the slaughter, Shoah is perhaps the definitive film on the Holocaust. Even more remarkably, the documentary doesn’t show archival footage of the actual atrocities. Instead, it relies on the words of its subjects to bring to life one of the most tragic moments in human history.
7) Earthlings (2005)
Directed by Shaun Monson
While many might balk at the film’s ideas concerning speciesism, Shaun Monson’s Earthlings is one of the most intense documentaries about animal rights ever made. A collaboration made with the aid of several notable vegans, including Joaquin Phoenix, Moby, and Maggie Q, the film contains extremely graphic footage of animals being abused, killed, and exploited in industries and cultures all over the world. Much of the footage was only obtained thanks to the use of hidden cameras. Some of the most graphic footage in the film comes in its observation of Japanese dolphin drive hunting, a practice which is more closely examined by the documentary in the number 4 spot of this list.
6) The Bridge (2006)
Directed by Eric Steel
Much like the aforementioned Faces of Death, Eric’s Steel’s The Bridge contains authentic footage of people dying. But this time around, instead of featuring accidental footage, The Bridge contains scenes of people committing suicide by jumping off the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge. Working every day for one year, the film’s crew managed to capture several people jumping to their deaths. To the film crew’s credit, they did try to stop the jumpers whenever they could. However, as they quickly discovered, most jumpers gave little to no warning before taking the fatal plunge. The film tries to examine the motivations of why dozens of people choose the famous landmark as the location for their suicides. To that end, The Bridge is both tasteful and tactful. But that doesn’t change the fact that watching several people kill themselves will disturb and depress viewers on a very deep level.
5) Jesus Camp (September 15, 2006)
Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady
As a Christian myself, I was horrified and repulsed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s Jesus Camp, an examination of the charismatic Christian summer camp “Kids On Fire School of Ministry.” Located in Devils Lake, North Dakota, the summer camp trains young children to be soldiers of the “army of God” against what they believe to be a secular and corrupt society. It is impossible to watch Jesus Camp without cringing at certain scenes: when the children are made to pray at a cardboard idol of president George W. Bush, when they are reduced to tears and screams during a religious service, and even a scene where they meet with (pre-scandal) Ted Haggard in order to receive advice about ministry and evangelism. This controversial documentary claims to be impartial, but that hasn’t stopped legions of conservative Christian groups from accusing it of being biased against their faith. Whether or not there was any bias on the part of the filmmakers does little to change the impact of this chilling documentary.
4) The Cove (2009)
Directed by Louie Psihoyos
Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove is an Academy Award winning documentary about Japanese dolphin drive hunting, a brutal process whereby migrating dolphins are driven into coves and mercilessly stabbed, gutted, and chopped to death by fishermen. Not only is the process inhumane and cruel, but it is allowed to survive thanks to shady business dealing with politicians who are willing to look the other way for a price. The film is incredibly controversial for both its graphic content and the methods by which the filmmakers attained it. For many scenes, hidden underwater cameras had to be used to capture footage of the slaughter. Since its release, it has been rallied against by the Japanese for portraying their nation in a poor light in the West.
3) Cropsey (June 4, 2009)
Directed by Joshua Zeman and Barbara Brancaccio
Cropsey is a documentary on a fascinating and equally disturbing concept: what if one of the many American urban legends about sinister child snatchers turned out to be true? In this case, the boogeyman is the eponymous Cropsey, an escaped mental patient who supposedly kidnaps and kills kids in New York. The documentary begins by exploring this urban legend before moving its focus onto the true-life story of Andre Rand, a Staten Island maniac accused of murdering 5 children in the 70’s and 80’s. These two figures, Cropsey and Rand, are used as a gateway for delving into the darker parts of small-town America. A word of warning: don’t watch this documentary in the dark.
2) The Hammer Maniacs (2010)
Produced for Aquí en Vivo
Have you ever looked into the face of pure evil? In this Chilean documentary, we come face-to-face with three of the most twisted, sadistic, and horrifying serial killers in history: the Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs, three Ukrainian teenagers charged with 21 murders, some of which they filmed. Not only were several of these murders captured on film, one of them, the brutal slaying of 48 year old Sergei Yatzenko, was leaked onto the internet and became a minor viral hit under the title “3Guys1Hammer,” referring to the weapon that they used to kill him. This documentary explores these crimes and features actual footage from the murder videos. Be warned: this documentary is not for the faint of heart.
1) Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (2011)
Produced for Vice.com
This online documentary examines one of the most heinous cultural abuses towards women still in existence today: Kyrgyzstan bride kidnapping. Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the practice of kidnapping young women and coercing them into marriages against their will has spiked significantly. While any film about such a terrible thing would be disturbing in its own right, this documentary pushes the boundaries of good taste by having a camera crew accompany a group of men during an actual kidnapping. Yes, you read that right: the film crew solicited their services as wedding photographers to a family, participated in a kidnapping, documented the wedding, and did nothing to help. The film crew claims that they didn’t interfere with the kidnapping because the woman was already planning on marrying one of her abductors, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that they participated in an act that is illegal under Kyrgyzstan law and condemned by the rest of the world. The kidnapping footage is, of course, extremely difficult to watch. Perhaps the most disturbing moment takes place immediately after the men have snatched the young woman and are taking her to the wedding. One of them laughs and addresses the sobbing young woman: “Girls will be happy if they get married crying.”