To take the form of non-fiction cinema and mold it in a structured narrative so as to get the viewers on the same page as the story-tellers, is as experimental as it is misunderstood.
The documentary form of film making hasn’t been tapped into by the Indian demographic, by and large. This art-form conventionally deals with real subjects articulated in a bland narrative of the audio-visual. Documentaries were popularized by their way of inviting the viewer in a first person interaction with the subject but that’s far from being the norm.
The art-form has earned a worship-worthy reputation over the years for its brushes with the truth. That does not, however, mean that documentaries are always real or true to the nature of the subject. But their inherent expectation of the truth can help its viewer to get a better understanding of certain truths.
So, if curiosity drives your urges, this list has a little too much for you. Remember, we warned you.
Disclaimer: For all cynics, we have refrained from the Zeitgeist series, simply because Zeitgeist deserves a separate article altogether.
1. Jesus Camp
Depending on what you feel about the religious indoctrination of children, this documentary could become your go-to argument bank or a cringe-fest of unsettling rituals. The documentary focuses on three children who attend a Christian summer camp in North Dakota. The film deals with the practice of empowering children with the belief that they possess the prophet within them and they can “take America back for Jesus”. In one scene, the children are seen stretching their hands out to a life-size cut-out of George W. Bush to pray for him.
The film met with so much controversy that the Christian summer camp it features was shut down by the local administration post complaints from parents.
2. Aokigahara : The Suicide Forest In Japan
Wonder what this documentary would be about? Aokigahara is a dense 35-square-kilometre forest at Mount Fuji’s northwest base in Japan, which makes for a perfectly lonely place to die. It’s easy to disappear in the wilderness of Aokigahara and never be seen again. Aokigahara has earned the reputation of being the country’s suicide hot-spot where over a 100 bodies, suspended from trees, are recovered every year by the authorities.
3. The Bridge
Speaking of suicides, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco has a rather grim reputation for playing host to over a 1000 suicide jumps from its railings. This documentary chronicles the leap of death people struggling from mental illnesses or addiction, take into the deep waters of the bay. With numerous suicide jumps caught on camera, this documentary makes for a very unsettling viewing experience, one that thrives in solitude.
4. Children of Rage
Before HBO started producing shows that killed off your favorite characters in a seemingly suspicious manner, it produced tormenting documentaries. This short documentary mainly consists of interviews of a child named Beth who acts violently in her newly adopted family. Things take a turn for the ugly when Beth starts to discuss the way she brutally abuses her younger brother’s penis and her desire to kill her foster parents. One would suggest viewing cat videos on YouTube as an antidote to this.
5. The Nightmare
In case you’d want to miss your good night’s sleep for some days to come, this is the documentary you should be watching tonight. Focusing on the haunting subject of Sleep Paralysis, this documentary recounts and reconstructs testimonies of people who experience sleep paralysis. Presenting a disorder we don’t understand, this documentary will have you looking at every possible explanation from aliens to demons. One particular patient tells how he only started to experience it once he got to know about Sleep Paralysis, meaning you could be next.
6. The Act of Killing
One of the most poignant documentaries of our times is unfortunately also the most disturbing one. Famous for blurring the lines between reality and fiction, The Act of Killing challenges the members of the once-active Indonesian death squad who carried out mass execution of millions of communists in 1965-66. The ramifications of both the victims and the perpetrators is a spectacle of modern documentary film-making. This one is as surreal as it is horrifying.
7. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes
Described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as “one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film”, this documentary is a non-narrative audio-visual document of the lifeless human body. Occasionally zooming in on the dead bodies in a morgue, the film does not miss out on the extraction of organs from the body during an autopsy. The film’s focus on the carnal body devoid of any human signification makes an abstract statement on the futile process of life and death.
Protip: DO NOT watch it with a plate full of steak, or anything else for that matter.
If you need to convince someone to give up non-vegetarian food, Earthlings is the way to go about it. Earthlings is a mostly-successful argument against the use of animals for clothing, entertainment, food and scientific research. The film shows the gruesome fate of any and all living beings that are not humans that suffer the fate blades and machines in the human being’s demand to lead a better life. What makes it unlike any other pro-vegan documentary is the fact that it does not hold back from showing its audience what they don’t want to see.
9. Night & Fog
One of the most harrowing and realistic depiction of the Nazi concentration camps was encapsulated in this 1955 documentary by Alain Resnais. The documentary features footage from the liberation of camps in 1945 where malnourished humans are seen emerging out of the camps, voicing the life left in their lungs on to the camera.
10. Titicut Follies
While covering the stark living conditions in a Massachusetts correctional facility, documentary film maker Frederick Wiseman presents a difficult-to-digest situation where the abuse of patients seem habitual. While the documentary deals with matters of consent and ethics, it has led to dynamic reforms in correctional institutions all around the US. The categorization of mental health patients as subjects and their abusive treatment gets the better of human objectivity while making an opinion on the subject. It’s as disturbing as it’s raw.
Now over to some more incomprehensible matters of the world. Like zoophilia, the concept of performing sexual acts with animals. This particular documentary follows a group of people who are attracted towards farm animals, who gained media attention after the death of a zoophile due to complications after being anally penetrated by a horse. Creepy, weird, uncomfortable are just some of the words that fail to describe this documentary.
12. Brother’s Keeper
This documentary finds its place in this list owing to the strange case it follows. Delbert Ward, an illiterate 59-year-old dairy farmer was accused of murdering his brother Bill, in the bed that they shared for 50 years. The Ward brothers were four bachelors ranging between 59-71 and living in extreme poverty. One theory suggests that the slain brother, Bill, suffered the consequence of a sexual act gone wrong. What’s more disturbing is the fact that he was later acquitted of the crime after it was found out that the New York State Police coerced a confession out of him as he was illiterate.
13. Capturing The Friedmans
The Friedman family was torn apart when the allegations of pedophilia against two of its members surfaced. Arnold Friedman, the teacher and the patriarch of the family, conducted computer classes at his home, which is where children have testified to being molested. Soon, Arnold and his youngest son, Jesse (then 19), were accused of multiple accounts of child molestation and sodomy. Capturing The Friedmans doesn’t take a stand but Arnold Friedman confessed to the crime right before killing himself in prison in 1995.
14. Interview With A Cannibal
Around 30 years ago, a Japanese man, Issei Sagawa, was walking in a park on the outskirts of Paris, carrying two suitcases. In the suitcase, was the dismembered body of a fellow student Renée Hartevelt, which Sagawa had been eating for 3 days. Sagawa explicitly describes how and why he killed and ate the fellow student. In a bizarre turn of events, Sagawa was declared insane and unfit for trial before he checked out of a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo in 1986 and has been a free man since.
15. The Family That Walks On All Fours
Here’s a sentence you never thought you’d read, did you? This is more than a sentence, as it turns out. The documentary The Family That Walks On All Fours follows a Turkish family, where 5 of its members walk on all four limbs. Their inability to walk on two limbs was unheard of until British scientists decided to decode the mystery. One of the first documentaries to begin a conversation about a possible human devolution, this one is disturbing on an unimaginable level.