Top 10 most disturbing documentaries of all time

November 24, 2021

We can all agree that, at times, documentaries have a greater ability than horror films to stay with you long after the credits roll and you’re lying in the dark with your own thoughts. They’re about real people, real flaws in our system and, whether they were released fifty years ago or yesterday, the issues raised in them can sit immeasurably close to our own lives.

This list of documentaries span decades. Some focus on individuals or families, some dark moments in our history and some reveal unsettling truths about forces we have always believed were built to protect us. One thing they all have in common though is that they do what they were made to do  - disturb us.


Photograph: The Rolling Stone

Crumb

Director: Terry Zwigoff
USA  / 116 mins
1994

Hailed by Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer as “One of the greatest films ever”, Crumb regularly features in lists like Morgan Spurlock’s show, 50 Documentaries to See Before You Die. It focuses on the underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, his family life and world views. Crumb has had a colourful career, and his cartoons are often explicit and sometimes violent, but it’s not his cartoons that make this documentary so memorable. We learn about Crumb’s childhood, and visit his brothers Maxon and Charles, the latter of which Crumb calls his biggest artistic inspiration. Maxon has a seizure disorder triggered by arousal, so sits on a mattress made of pins and practices celibacy, while Charles suffers from acute mental health issues. Tragically, Charles commited suicide after filming and never saw the finish product of this critically adored documentary.


The imposter documentary: screenshot of infamous fraudster Frédéric Bourdin
Photograph: Channel 4

The Imposter

Director: Bart Layton
USA / 99 minutes
2012

One word that seems to be used by everyone from critics to youtube commenters to describe this documentary is, “creepy”. It tells the story of Frédéric Bourdin, a French trickster who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, an American teenage boy who had been missing for three years. He fooled Spanish and U.S investigators, as well as several members of the Barclay family… despite having different coloured eyes and a French accent. Something about Bourdin is so undeniably unsettling. Is it his strange passion for convincingly impersonating others or the fact that he comes off as quite charming in this bizarre, gripping film?


People wearing masks walk on Danbi Bridge at the Temple of Heaven Park on February 24, 2014, in Beijing, China.
Photograph: ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

Under the Dome

Director: Ming Fan
China / 104 minutes
2015

This film was hosted on Chinese site Tencent for just four days before it was banned by the Chinese Government. During those 4 days, it was viewed 300 million times. It’s subject matter? The alarming levels of pollution in Chinese air. In 2015, the air quality was only considered safe on 84 out of 365 days.

Chai Jing, who narrates the film, explains how her unborn child started growing a tumor due to her breathing in the polluted air in Beijing during her pregnancy. She also interviews a six-year-old child and asks her if she’s ever seen stars, the child responds that she has not. Chai then asks if she has ever seen blue sky, to which she responds that she has seen “One that’s a little blue” in her entire life. Unsurprisingly, the film really resonated with parents, with many keeping their children inside as much as possible to protect them. Fortunately, things have improved since the film's release and, in August 2019, Beijing experienced it’s lowest PM2.5 on record and is on track to drop out of the Top 200 most polluted cities.



Seaspiracy directed by Ali Tabrizi. A fishing net full of fish, demonstrating the mass fishing issue and it's impact on our oceans
Photograph: Roger Grace/Greenpeace

Seaspiracy

Ali Tabrizi
UK / 89 minutes
2021

This film is the second installment of films produced by Kip Anderson, with Cowspiracy having been released in 2014. Seaspiracy shook the world after it’s release earlier this year, and made it harder for us to hide behind the excuse of buying ‘ethically sourced’ fish products at the supermarket - arguing that there is simply no such thing. It’s disturbing because it displays the level of greed that exists in corporations, to the point that they are willing to destroy our marine ecosystem to an irreversible level. Of course, the leaders of said corporations have argued that the film shows them in an unfair and unfavourable light. Some biologists also agree the information is factually inaccurate, and that sustainable fishing does exist. As is the case with so many documentaries of this nature, what makes it upsetting is also what makes it great and, at the very least, it’s sparked a much needed conversation surrounding our mass consumption of seafood.



Photograph: Magnolia Pictures

Jesus Camp

Director: Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing
USA / 85 mins
2006

Becky Fischer once ran the Kids on Fire School of Ministry, a summer camp in North Dakota. Following the release of ‘Jesus Camp’, Fischer was forced to abandon the school and it closed its doors soon after. The documentary revealed the extreme indoctrination techniques used by counsellors at Kids on Fire, including inciting hatred against abortion, homosexuals and...Harry Potter. In one famous scene, Fischer says that if Harry Potter was alive in the old testament era, Jewish people “would have stoned him to death”. When asked why she focuses her religious actions so feverishly on young children, she says openly that they are easier to mould, and that democracy is designed to fail itself because you have to give freedom to everyone.

Grady and Ewing stress that they made the film as objective observers, but the church were not happy and believed the participants in the film had been “manipulated by the directors in their effort to cast evangelical Christianity in an unflattering light”.



a scene from the documentary Human Flow in which a refugee describes life in a refugee camp
Photograph: Getty Images

Human Flow

Director: Ai Weiwei
Germany / 140 minutes
2017

In this film, we are taken on a 20 country-wide trip across the globe, to see the scale of the refugee crisis. Using several techniques, from drone shots to iPhone camera footage, we see the mass of people fleeing their native countries, as well as getting up close and personal with the people on the ground. It’s easy to detach ourselves from the severity of the refugee crisis from our safe homes, and this film provides you with some unforgettable imagery that aims to prevent you from doing so lighty again. The film shows people recounting their dangerous voyages, their fears and the deaths of their loved ones. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this film is just how oblivious you were before you watched it.



A screenshot from the 1967 documentary Titticut Follies, showing an inmate of the mental hospital playing the trumpet in the courtyard
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photos

Titticut Follies

Director: Frederik Wiseman
USA / 84 minutes
1967

Titticut Follies peels back the curtain on psychiatric hospitals of the 1960s and was filmed at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Massachusetts. It was the first of many documentaries made by Wiseman, a lawyer turned filmmaker, that focus on social institutions like the police force and schools. In the film, we see how poorly the patients were treated, being subject to long periods of isolation, irregular bathing and humiliation. The film’s release was pushed back several times, as the Massachusetts government attempted to ban it’s release, ironically claiming it was a violation of the patient’s dignity. Almost 20 years later, families of inmates who had died at Bridgewater attempted to sue the hospital and the lawyer who represented them used the Titticut Follies as evidence that they were being severely mistreated, crediting the film for inciting change in the nationwide treatment of victims of mental illness in the years since it’s release.


Women in india protest for gender equality following the 2021 BBC documentary India's Daughter
Photograph: Wordpress

India’s Daughter

Director: Leslee Udwin
UK / 63 minutes
2015

India’s daughter is an infuriating watch. It details the events of 2012 gang attack and murder of “Nirbhaya”, a 23-year old student in Delhi, India. She and her friend were on their way home from the cinema when they were attacked by a group of men. The events of the attack themselves are horrifying enough, and I won’t go into detail here, but that isn’t the only thing about this documentary that caused widespread protest in India as well as the UK, where the film was first shown on the BBC. The film included an interview with one of the men who perpetrated the crime; he claims that the incident was entirely “Nirbhaya”s fault, and that “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night”. As well as this, one of the defense lawyers in the case is shown saying that if a woman in his family was seen engaging in any pre-marital activities, that he would “Put petrol on her and set her alight”. The film highlighted the need for gender equality activism in the modern world, and that the fight to make the streets a safe place for women was still ongoing.



Photograph: Slant Magazine

The Bridge

Director: Eric Steel
USA / 95 minutes
2006

Filmed across the course of the year at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, The Bridge crew caught 23 of the 24 total suicide jumps made from the bridge in 2003. It takes an unflinching look at the issue, the people left behind and the flawed security system that allows this to continue today. Perhaps unsurprisingly, bridge officials attempted to have the film banned as they claimed Eric Steel, the director, was dishonest about his intentions when acquiring his licence to film. They even argued that suicide rates at the hands of the bridge increased after it’s release and cliamed it was an ivasion of privacy. As recently as 2015, it was banned on Netflix in New Zealand. It seems critics are split on the documentary's intentions and outcome; on Rotten Tomatoes the critical consensus states, "Tactlessly morbid or remarkably sensitive? Deeply disturbing or viscerally fascinating?” Either way, it’s an undeniably forgettable watch.  


The entrance to Auschwitz-Berkenau taken 75 years after the camp's liberation
Photograph: Robert Michael/dpa-Zentralbild/dpa

Night and Fog

Director: Alain Resnais
France  / 32 minutes
1956

This truly bone-chilling french language documentary features post-liberation footage of Nazi concentration camps  Auschwitz and Majdanek, cut with stock footage of the camps whilst it was still host to it’s prisoners during the Second World War. It’s commentary depicts details of what life was like in the camps, not shying away from descriptions of torutue, experimentation and assault on female prisoners. It still serves as a poignant reminder of the events, and was shown on French National television in the 1990s. Several attempts to censor the film were made following its release due to the horrific imagery and tough subject matter. It was rejected from the Cannes Film Festival, as members of the reviewing committee deemed the holocause as “something that is better forgotten”.



If you do decide to watch one of these documentaries and would like to share your thoughts, or have any others you think we’ve missed, send us a message on Instagram or Twitter.

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