Documentaries bring the viewer into a world viewers otherwise might have no knowledge of. They open our eyes to tragedies and atrocities, bring to light revelations, and explore topics in a depth unattainable in other forms of media. Some documentaries are so shocking in their subject matter, incorrect in their factual evidence, or so eye-opening that they become lightning rods for controversy. Others just cast a new light on subjects or uncover evidence that is damning. Here are ten of the most controversial documentaries ever made.
10) Zeitgeist, 2007
I know it will come as a shock that a movie about conspiracy theories makes this list, but that’s exactly what Zeitgeist is. This film focuses on some rather popular conspiracy theories including: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the origins of Jesus Christ and Christianity and the control of currency on a global scale. The content is almost inflammatory in nature and the creators seem hell-bent on causing controversy and not presenting an intelligent discussion point or potential solutions. Some critics have claimed that the creators are even attempting to brainwash its intended audience.
9) High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, 1995
This film follows the lives of three crack addicts living and struggling in Lowell, MA. Shocking subject matter includes unwanted pregnancies, prostitution, and the motives behind why these people do what they do for their fix. It’s a humanistic look into a situation that most will never see – and there’s no happy ending. One of the primary subjects Brenda died within six months of filming, and the other two have done little to remedy their situations. While there are more shocking documentaries out there, this one is particularly alarming in that it shows just how destructive crack can be.
8) An Inconvenient Truth, 2006
The factual evidence presented in this documentary is hard to ignore. Yet, that’s just what a large portion of America has chosen to do. This documentary exposed and challenged the government policies on global warming, while focusing on Al Gore’s presentation of climate change and his desire to educate people on what they can do to help. Schools have used this film as educational material, not only for climate change but also a lesson in truism and factual evidence and how it gets ignored. Despite being fairly well received, some have challenged the facts in this documentary. Others claim a left-wing media bias and an agenda to brainwash Americans against Republicans. President George W. Bush also dismissed the narrative outright.
7) The Iceman Tapes, 1992
Richard ‘the Iceman’ Kuklinski was a mafia hit man and serial killer who was arrested in 1986. Kuklinski is believed to have begun killing men for the mob in the 1950s and he is interviewed by a psychiatrist and he attempts to explain why he did what he did, shedding light on his motivations, his past and his experiences. It’s a shocking and alarming insight into the mind of a cold-blooded killer. Sometimes chilling, sometimes callous, Kuklinski makes no apologies for his actions. There’s no remorse and the subject matter is rather cruel and stark at times, but the material offers us a frank look into the mind of a man who killed countless others.
6) Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children, 2007
This documentary focuses on children in Bulgaria with disabilities, most of which are abandoned. The subject matter is shocking, and the government’s reaction to these children is both disturbing and enlightening. Unable to care for these children, the government dumps them in underfunded, poorly maintained and mismanaged orphanages. The lives of those who are not disabled are equally tormented, and many are unfairly lumped into situations from which there is no escape. The public awareness from this documentary has had monumentally positive effects, but the lives of these children are tragic and the government’s ignorance is just overwhelming.
5) Jesus Camp, 2006
Oh where to begin? Jesus Camp focuses on an influential Christian summer camp in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Here children are taught they are prophetic and possess godly gifts which will allow them to “take back America for Christ.” It also exposes other select cult-like Christian organizations and sects, and their influence on the children who become entrapped in them. The zealotry presented in the film is both impressive and alarming, especially when seen in younger children. Following the release of the film the camp was shut down in fear of vandalism. While the documentary is certainly unbiased and even-handed, the evangelicalism presented is startling and exposes a segment of Christian idealism that is in the minority, but carries a large agenda.
4) Child of Rage: a Story of Abuse, 1992
This chilling documentary details the life of a girl named Beth and how her sexual abuse has affected her. No longer able to feel empathy, Beth engages in sadism, cruelty to animals, and even sexual acts. She openly admits to wanting to kill her parents. Despite the horrible nature of her thoughts, this is a story of an attempt at redemption. It’s an alarming look into the effects of sexual abuse and the massive challenges a child faces when subjected to such crimes. It’s not subject matter for young viewers and it can be emotionally draining to sit through. Still, there’s hope for Beth. What makes this documentary controversial is that is follows a young child who is known to have suffered abuse and that alone is unusual and enlightening.
3) Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004
Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary on the war on terror, the 9/11 attacks and the corporate agenda is certainly one of the more controversial documentaries ever made. It strongly suggests that the government’s reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks was insufficient at best. Moore claims the 2000 election was directly influenced by Fox News and claims that Iraq and Afghanistan invasions were precursors to a natural gas pipeline plan. There’s no shortage of controversial material here to focus on. Some lauded Moore for his restraint on attacking Bush, while others saw the film as a direct attack on Right Wing America. Considering the timing of the release (right before the 2004 election) it’s hard to argue some of these accusations.
2) Capturing the Friedmans, 2003
It’s a hard thing to portray child molesters in an unbiased manner, but that’s exactly what this documentary does. Equally impressive, the facts are presented to the viewers and each is allowed to make his own conclusion about the subject matter presented. This story focuses on a child molestation case in the 1980s in which Arnold and Jesse Friedman are implicated after child pornography is discovered in Arnold’s home. Arnold was a piano teacher with daily access to children. He agreed to some charges hoping to spare his son, but both were arrested for molestation and both served time in prison. This is the story of that case. Recent evidence suggests that Jesse may have been wrongly convicted.
1) Interview with a Cannibal, 2012
This disturbing documentary is a fascinating conversation with an admitted cannibal named Issei Sagawa. Deemed clinically insane, Sagawa was admitted to a clinical institution for his crimes without being charged, as the French court system dictated. Sagawa was later released to Japanese custody, but they found him to be sane. When France wouldn’t release his documents they had no recourse but to release him for his crimes – and now he’s something of a minor celebrity in Japan. In 1981 Sagawa murdered and cannibalized a Dutch woman while living in Paris. This TV documentary explores all the horrible aspects of Sagawa’s mentality and the reasons behind his actions as he openly talks about what it is to be him.