THE television revolution of the past two decades is not only about fictional series. Documentaries, whether single episodes or series, make for some of the most entertaining and compelling viewing. Here are 19 documentaries that will keep you glued to the flat screen.
These are not the latest and greatest documentary works, merely offerings that have touched and excited me as an irredeemable TV addict.
Documentary films and series
(now on streaming services)
Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey
Directors: Rachel Dretzin and Grace McNally
The internet is full of documentaries about religious cults, but this series about a radical offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons) will make your jaw drop.
The polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is an ultra-conservative patriarchal sect under the tight control of Warren Jeffs, and before him his father Rulon. The men with all the power in the town of Short Creek marry multiple submissive and approved wives.
Dretzin and McNally conduct interviews with some of the women who have escaped the movement, as well as with investigative journalists and legal professionals. Scenes are recreated with actors portraying Jeffs and other individuals.
Just when you think you've reached the macabre heart of the story, Dretzin and McNally peel back yet another dark layer of the horrifying truth. Deception, rape, violence, betrayal, greed … the list of sins is extensive.
Director: Lesley Chilcott
Progressive and artistic types don't easily acknowledge a fondness for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bodybuilding is seen as obscene, and his violent action movies are beyond vulgar. But let's face it, no other person has reached the pinnacle in three such diverse and competitive disciplines — bodybuilding, movies and politics.
It has been a mantra in his life that people told him he wouldn't achieve his goals, be it as an actor or a political leader. Yet, he became the biggest action movie star in the world and one of the most successful US governors of the second half of the 20th century.
Arnie is now 75 and this documentary series makes it quite convenient for him to control the narrative about his legacy; one doesn't get the impression the filmmakers were trying to uncover his darker secrets. However, it remains entertaining viewing about a charismatic man with a surprising sense of humour.
Gladbeck: The Hostage Crisis
Netflix (1 hour 31 minutes)
Editor: Volker Heise
In August 1988, two habitual criminals, the anarchist Hans-Jürgen Rösner and the cold-minded Dieter Degowski, robbed a branch of Deutsche Bank in Gladbeck, North Rhine-Westphalia. They escaped with two hostages from the bank, picked up Rösner's girlfriend, Marion Löblich, and hijacked a public bus in Bremen with 32 people on board. For nearly three days, they led a media circus and an inept group of police officers across Germany and into the Netherlands.
The director, Volker Heise, only uses existing original footage and on-screen text. The documentary is a study of what happens when journalists enjoy absolute freedom (at one point, a journalist rides along with the robbers in a car) and showcases the astonishing ineptitude of the police.
The film is worth watching just to see what someone who feels absolutely no reverence for any authority or structure looks like. Rösner makes the most unscrupulous person you've ever met look like Donald Duck.
George Carlin’s American Dream
HBO | Showmax
Directors: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio
If you love George Carlin and you haven't seen this series, drop everything and watch it immediately. If you don't know who Carlin is, he was the first and sharpest of the political and social comedians of the seventies and eighties. He fearlessly tackled sacred cows, including religion, without any consideration for the consequences to his career or loved ones.
Apatow and Bonfiglio pick up the story when Carlin was still a clean-cut variety concert comedian and cover his transformation into the alternative cultural icon he eventually became. They interview his two wives, his brother, his son and daughter, and various comedians. It's a highly personal documentation of this brilliant and tumultuous personality.
Bank Robbers: The Last Great Heist
Netflix (1 hour 49 minutes)
Editor: Matías Gueilburt
Many people refer to the 2006 robbery of a branch of Banco Rio in Buenos Aires as the perfect bank heist. The mastermind behind the six-member gang, Fernando Araujo — an artist, practitioner of Eastern martial arts and yoga master — explains that he planned the heist not to acquire money but as an artwork.
He explains that bank heists typically happen in one of two ways; either the thieves storm the bank, hold the customers and staff hostage and escape with the loot, or they dig a tunnel from somewhere near the bank and enter from underneath. In a stroke of brilliance, Araujo realised that no one had combined the two methods before.
Call Me Miles
Netflix (51 minutes)
Editor: Wynand Dreyer
For a moment, forget everything you've learned and read about the transformation of transgender individuals, forget about the venomous politics surrounding transgender people and the radical viewpoints and noise, forget about the debates over the position of transgender individuals in sports.
Imagine for a moment that someone you love dearly, and trust completely, tells you they are in the wrong body and need to undergo a physical transformation. That's what Call Me Miles is about. It's about real people, lovely people, an Afrikaans family from Pretoria who face this challenge head-on.
Miles Robinson is a young man who was once a girl at Afrikaanse Hoër Meisieskool in Pretoria. This is his story, told with compassion and skill by seasoned journalist Wynand Dreyer. It is a documentary highlight of the past year.
(that every well-informed person should watch)
YouTube (2 hours)
Editor: Terry Zwigoff
This classic, released in 1995, is described by many film critics as their favourite documentary. Zwigoff, a friend of the renowned American underground comix artist Robert Crumb, had years of unrestricted access to the highly eccentric Crumb and his even more peculiar brothers, Maxon and Charles, who are also artists, albeit much more obscure.
The documentary provides the viewer with unfiltered access to the thoughts and soul of a great artist, as well as his family context, traumas and ecstasies, through his brothers, his mother (present here and there), his wife and ex-wives, and other artists and critics.
Be warned, Crumb and his brothers are not angels, and the film is not for sensitive souls. I could only find a version of the documentary on YouTube with Spanish subtitles (but that didn't bother me much).
The Act of Killing
YouTube (2 hours 38 minutes)
Editor: Joshua Oppenheimer
In 2012, a British-American filmmaker named Joshua Oppenheimer released a documentary that was so original, honest and shocking that the journalistic world took notice. The subject of the film — the mass murderers of communists in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 — is of such a nature that one can hardly make a boring film about it, but it was Oppenheimer's approach that left critics lost for words.
In 1965, communist groups attempted to overthrow the government of President Sukarno in Indonesia, but the rebellion was suppressed. A military officer named Suharto played a significant role in quelling the uprising and he overthrew Sukarno. Then street thugs, including individuals such as Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, were recruited to lead death squads which ended up killing about a million people.
Oppenheimer tracked down Congo and Zulkadry, who continued to live freely and enjoyed the protection of right-wing paramilitary groups such as Pemuda Pancasila, whose members include generals and government ministers. He convinced them to be actors playing themselves in a film about their gruesome crimes. A combination of vanity and naivety made them agree.
The result is one of the most absurd, gruesome, macabre and surreal films you will see on screen. In particular, Congo is a stunning personality — seemingly lighthearted and playful yet believed to have personally killed more than 1,000 people with his own hands.
YouTube (1 hour 44 minutes)
Editor: Werner Herzog
Significant film critics consider Werner Herzog to be the most important living filmmaker. In this case, Herzog is not on a film set but handling hundreds of hours of unprocessed footage captured by North American grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell over 14 summers in Katmai National Park, Alaska.
Treadwell can best be described as a dedicated and melodramatic grizzly bear enthusiast. His insistence on living in near the bears ultimately led to his death as well as that of his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Treadwell, a refugee from urban life and struggling with alcohol and heroin problems, had his relationship with the bears deemed inappropriate by several park rangers, scientists and indigenous people.
Herzog never judges him but creates a comprehensive, multi-layered and elegant work that allows viewers to decide for themselves.
Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski
Netflix (1 hour 31 minutes)
Editor: Irek Dobrowolski, written by Stephen Cooper
A collector of comics and art, Glenn Bray, discovers a book in a second-hand bookstore about a forgotten Polish sculptor, Stanislaw Szukalski, and becomes enamoured with the monumental works depicted on its pages.
One day, to his astonishment, he finds out that Szukalski lives just around the corner from him in an ordinary middle-class house in Los Angeles. He looks up his number in the phone book, visits the 79-year-old artist, gradually befriends him and uncovers an eccentric imagination and a body of work on a scale that is almost unimaginable.
He discovers that Szukalski led a fragmented life between America and Poland, and that the World War 2 had a devastating impact on him. He also realises that the hubristic yet entertaining artist lives in the troubled shadow of his past.
The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife
YouTube (1 hour 25 minutes)
Editor: Nick Broomfield
A British journalist, Nick Broomfield, with a cameraman and assistant, visits South Africa in 1991, intending to interview the then-leader of the AWB, Eugene Terre'Blanche, in Ventersdorp. The project turns out to be much more problematic than he anticipated.
Terre'Blanche is evasive. His manager, the chainsmoking JP Meyer, takes care of Broomfield and his team, trying to assist them. Broomfield discovers that despite Meyer's unwavering racism, he is in the process of leaving the AWB. The contrast between the worldly Broomfield, the kind-hearted yet radical Meyer and the melodramatic Terre'Blanche is, to say the least, hilarious.
A low-resolution version of the documentary, in nine parts, has been uploaded by a user named mod4all on YouTube, but you can also watch it on Channel4.com if you have a VPN.
Sport doccies worth the effort
Tour de France: Unchained
Editor: James Gay-Rees and others
Netflix is doing the same for cycling with Tour de France: Unchained as it did for motorsport with Formula 1: Drive to Survive. It was made by the same production company, Box to Box Films.
The concept is brilliant. Take a complex sport that has remained niche over the years but is actually fascinating, and present it in a simple and understandable way for a new audience. Take them behind the scenes, introduce them to the main characters, involve them in some of the strategic changes within teams, share the gossip and human drama, the rivalries and wars, and voilà, you have a new audience.
Within a few months, you'll have new experts on Facebook confidently discussing the stamina of Tadej Pogačar versus Jonas Vingegaard, and the team strategy of Jumbo-Visma against AG2R-Citroën.
By the time you read this, the 2023 Tour de France is already well under way, but it's never too late to get involved. Watch it, it's fantastic.
Boom! Boom! The World vs. Boris Becker
Editor: Alex Gibney
I remember it like it was yesterday. I was 14 in 1985 when a 17-year-old German giant, Boris Becker, won his first Wimbledon title. All South Africans of a certain age remember it because he outshone one of our own, the cannonball-serving Durbanite Kevin Curren, in the final. Well, Kevin did manage to win a set at least.
Becker may not have won as many singles titles as Djokovic, Nadal or Federer, but he forever changed the game with his powerful play and athletic abilities. He was a towering figure who threw his body into every ball. He wasn't a traditional sun-kissed pretty boy with dark hair and a tan. I'm sure someone may have called him the German equivalent of “witrot" at school. Not everyone was fond of him, but I always hoped he would win — there was something innocent and even attractive about Boris.
After tennis, his life started unravelling. He faced issues with relationships, finances, tax authorities, suggestions of alcoholism, sex scandals, bankruptcy, gambling — you name it. He even spent eight months in prison. The documentary has two parts: “Triumph" and “Disaster", both of which were always part of Boris's life.
A significant part of the documentary features an interview with Becker just before he goes to prison. He is as honest as Becker can be, which apparently is never 100%. It also includes a candid interview with his former wife, the impressive Barbara Feltus.
I truly enjoyed this documentary.
The Last Dance
Netflix | ESPN Films
Editor: Jason Hehir
This series was released three years ago and I believe most sports fanatics have already seen it. But even if you're not a sports fan and simply enjoy good journalism, watch it. It's not just a portrait of Michael Jordan, considered by some as the greatest athlete of the 20th century, but of the entire ecosystem surrounding him — the Chicago Bulls in 1997 and 1998.
Long interviews with all the main characters are woven throughout the series. Jordan is an incredibly strong and dominant character, but you also meet the wonderful Scottie Pippen and the basketball rock star Dennis Rodman. And you meet the coach behind the Bulls' success in the 1990s, Phil Jackson.
You won't regret it. I watched the 10 episodes in one day.
100 Foot Wave
HBO | Showmax
Editor: Chris Smith
Two seasons, six episodes each
The first season of 100 Foot Wave revolves around three things: the legendary surfer Garrett McNamara (who is still going strong at 55 years old), the quest for the elusive 100-foot wave, and the new playground for big wave surfers, Nazaré in Portugal.
McNamara was the first of the big-wave surfers to discover Nazaré after a local invited him to come see. The problem with Nazaré is that the giant waves are dangerous and difficult to ride. With a team of experienced surfers and supporters, McNamara devises a plan to tackle them. Over time, the secret gets out, and surfers from all over the world flock to the small Portuguese village, skyrocketing the risk of accidents.
The second season of 100 Foot Wave is available on Showmax, and I'm going to binge-watch it at the earliest opportunity.
Provocative music documentaries
Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson
Mark Ronson, the Englishman who hosts this series, is an internationally renowned pop music producer and musician but also a down-to-earth guy, still sporting his natural hair colour and a collared shirt. He has won seven Grammys, an Oscar and a Golden Globe. He has also produced the incredible album Back to Black by Amy Winehouse, as well as numerous albums for artists such as Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, Miley Cyrus and Bruno Mars.
In the six episodes, he takes you on a journey through the six key technologies and sound developments that have influenced pop music and artists: auto-tune, sampling, echo (reverb), synthesisers, drum machines and distortion. It's a fascinating tour led by a man who is still in awe of the world of sound and is eager to share it.
What Drives Us
Amazon Prime Video (1 hour 28 minutes)
Editor: Dave Grohl
Dave Grohl, the former drummer of Nirvana and current frontman of Foo Fighters, is known as the “nicest guy in rock music", and for good reason. Despite being a true legend, he remains down-to-earth and friendly with everyone, from diehard fans to the big shots in the industry.
He believes all bands go through a period where the members have to travel and live in a van or a tour bus for a few years, with all their equipment loaded up, playing concerts night after night, seeking fame and success.
In those vans, you smell each other's feet and farts, you hear (or see!) them having sex, you sing and write songs together, you eat junk food together, you witness their drug abuse or withdrawal symptoms, and a few other horrifying and fantastic things.
He talks to a whole bunch of rock stars about their van days: Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Brian Johnson from AC/DC, Ringo Starr, Tony Kanal from No Doubt, The Edge from U2, Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, and many others. It's a delightful documentary with a lighthearted tone.
The Velvet Underground
Apple TV+ (110 minutes)
Editor: Todd Haynes
What makes Todd Haynes' documentary about the rock group The Velvet Underground so satisfying is that he understands that the group, and especially its most prominent member, Lou Reed, was one of the key pillars around which a dynamic cultural movement in New York in the early 1970s revolved.
But he also recognises that such an influential group could not exist without the cultural movement in which the artist Andy Warhol and his club, The Factory, played a central role. Prominent artists who frequented Warhol's club included Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and Truman Capote.
If you find this type of avant-garde art movement interesting, I highly recommend this documentary, not only for its subject matter but also for Todd Haynes' unique and provocative filmmaking style.
Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Netflix (2 hours 22 minutes)
Editor: Martin Scorsese
Martin Scorsese's curiosity, much like Werner Herzog's, has led him to make documentaries, and in this case a pseudo-documentary. If you're interested in Dylan and haven't watched this film yet, make a plan to do so.
The film was pieced together from leftover footage after Dylan and Sam Shepard made a film themselves (Renaldo and Clara) which was released in 1978 but was such a huge failure that Dylan withdrew it from the market after a few weeks. Very few people have seen it. It is therefore ironic that Scorsese's “rescue job", released in 2019, is such a great success on all levels.
The film documents a somewhat chaotic 1975 tour through New England and Canada by Dylan and a whole bunch of his Greenwich Village friends, including Joan Baez, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Scarlet Rivera (Dylan's wonderful violinist), Shepard, Sharon Stone (as a fictional version of herself), Joni Mitchell (in the later parts), and many others. For some reason, there are also fictional characters in the film, such as the “filmmaker" Stefan van Dorp, who features in interviews throughout.
The year 1975 was after the idealism of the youth movements of the 1960s had passed, as well as to a large extent the disillusionment and hedonism that followed. The Vietnam War was also over. The chaos of this tour is a reflection of the spirit of the time.
After watching it, I understood Dylan in a new way. A visual experience of a person gives you a different understanding than just listening to his music and reading lyrics. Here, for the first time, I understood his magnetic charisma and influence on people around him, and also how lighthearted and funny he is. Bob is a nice guy!
♦ VWB ♦
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