YouTube documentaries are proof that the age-old idiom “the truth is stranger than fiction” often still applies.
Documentary filmmaking itself has enjoyed an uptick in interest in the last several years thanks to the virality associated with Netflix’s Making a Murderer, The Keepers and 13th, HBO’s The Jinx and Showtime’s Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee.
For as much as we consider the aforementioned platforms to be necessities rather than creature comforts, many people still have to consider cost above enrichment.
Thankfully, YouTube actually proves to not only satiate the viewing habits of those looking for similar documentaries online, but also with the added benefit of being free.
We’ve done a deep dive to unearth the 20 best YouTube documentaries — running the gamut from YouTube crime films to BBC investigations by Sir David Attenborough — which collectively speak to themes involving grief, redemption, justice, humor and majestic beauty.
A Certain Kind of Death
One of the great mysteries that exists today is what happens to our bodies after we die? In A Certain Kind of Death, filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh ask a much simpler question: what literally happens to a deceased person’s body if they have no next of kin?
Madness in the Fast Lane
In 2008, BBC documentary cameras captured two Swedish sisters, Ursula and Sabina Eriksson, as they willingly leapt in front of cars barreling down the M6 motorway in the UK. The vitality of the news clip resulted in an examination of the incident where filmmakers delved into a little known phenomenon called folie à deux (shared psychosis) where delusional behaviors are transmitted from one person to the other.
Capturing the Friedmans
From filmmaker Anthony Jarecki (The Jynx), Capturing the Friedmans was initially supposed to be an examination of various child entertainers and titled Just a Clown – focusing on popular New York City entertainer, David Friedman, who assumed the clown moniker, “Silly Billy.”
However, during filming, Jarecki uncovered the fact that both Friedman’s brother, Jesse, and his father, Arnold, had pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 2003.
Wisconsin Death Trip
Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lesy, Wisconsin Death Trip uses old photographs and vintage documents to tell the bizarre story of a series of strange events that took place in a small Wisconsin town, Black River Falls, in the 1890s.
As a bonus, the entire film is scored by DJ Shadow.
This is the Zodiac Speaking
The Zodiac Killer is one of the most infamous and high-profile string of unsolved murders in United States history which has resulted in countless theories and a David Fincher film, yet there is still no explanation for who was responsible for seven murders in California between December 1968-October 1969.
Whereas other documentaries focus primarily on trying to point their finger at persons of interest, This is the Zodiac Speaking instead opts for factual base analysis and lets the viewer conjure up their own beliefs.
A Murder In The Family
In 2002, a British businessman was killed in his sleep in the Philippines. In A Murder In the Family, the mother of the victim, Margaret Davis, attempts to prove that her daughter-in-law, Evelyn, was the one responsible.
The Woman Who Wasn’t There
With the anniversary of 9/11 having just passed, the tragedy continues to rely on firsthand accounts to chronicle that fateful day in American history.
One such account by Tania Head, who lost a husband in the attack — and who herself was injured but still managed to walk down 78 floors with her right arm dangling — was particularly harrowing.
The only problem, Tania Head wasn’t a real person and she didn’t have a husband in the Twin Towers.
Tania was actually Alicia. She wasn’t even in New York City. The whole thing was a hoax.
In The Woman Who Wasn’t There, we try to understand why a person would lie about something so terrible.
In addition to being one of the true architectural wonders of the world, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge has also been one of the most infamous suicide locales for desperate people.
In The Bridge, filmmaker Eric Steel used 10,000 hours of footage to capture the last moments of 23 people who all stepped over the guard rail and plunged into the San Francisco Harbor. Interviews include relatives of the jumpers as well as a man who survived the 25-story descent.
The film’s content caused all kinds of uproar. However, in the aftermath, the city spent $2 million USD to fund a study of building a pedestrian suicide barrier.
Walking the Tracks: The Summer of ‘Stand by Me’
Divided into four different parts, this documentary explores the filmmaking process and origins of Stephen King’s short story, “The Body” which was used as the basis for the seminal coming-of-age film, Stand by Me.
The Family that Walks on All Fours
The BBC Two documentary, The Family that Walks on All Fours, chronicles a Kurdish family in Turkey who all move with a gait that suggests that evolution can actually go backwards.
Equal parts an examination of the nuclear unit as it is an attempt to uncover the biological reasoning behind what could make generations of one family all move in such a unique manner, the film is certainly eye opening.
A Brief History of Time
Directed by acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), A Brief History of Time is his examination of the extraordinary life of physicist, Stephen Hawking.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne’s 2008 documentary is particularly poignant because he himself was friends with the subject of the film, Andrew Bagby, who was found shot dead in a park in Pennsylvania.
As the police investigation begins to hone in on his ex-girlfriend who fled to Canada, the true crime drama gets an added dimension when it is revealed that the woman in question was pregnant with Andrew’s baby.
The Making of Rushmore
Over the years, Wes Anderson has established himself as one of the most original filmmakers in Hollywood thanks to the stories he likes to tell and his unique sense of color.
Although Rushmore wasn’t his first film, it definitely put Anderson on an upward career trajectory. However, many might not be aware that his brother, Eric Chase Anderson, was armed with a camera of his own to document his brother’s ambitious feature.
From casting a then unknown Jason Schwartzman, to the musings of Bill Murray, The Making of Rushmore is certainly lighter fare than other documentaries on YouTube.
The Next Black
The Next Black is a film that explores the future of fashion. While that is a large and overarching concept, each facet of exploration awakens things you probably haven’t even considered like what it truly means to be sustainable, how technology is aiding us, and why the industry is a leading producer of pollutants in the world.
With key interviews with people from adidas, Patagonia, BioCouture and Studio XO, the documentary challenges what it means to be “into clothes” in an age where the products are decidedly less utilitarian than they were fifty years ago.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has enjoyed an uptick in public interest in recent years thanks to the usage of the discipline in MMA.
The Gracie family is undoubtedly the biggest name in the martial art — touting one black belt after another. In 1995, cameras followed around Rickson Gracie (who at the time held a record of 398-0) and two other fighters as they prepared for the Vale Tudo Japan tournament — a no-holds-barred, eight-man contest without weight classes.
In the spring of 1996, a senior in high school, Michael Lucid, began documenting the lives of two 8th grade girls, Amber and Harper, who had become the subject of torment from their classmates for what is described in the opening crawl as “crass behavior and bad hygiene.”
The film is awakening on a number of levels. It touches on the anti-establishment sentiment that had begun bubbling up thanks to the grunge movement in music, how cliques are formed in high school, and how even preteens could identify with riot grrrl messages.
Life In A Day
Life In A Day was an attempt by director, Kevin Macdonald, to provide a glimpse as to what a typical 24-hour experience was like for people all around the world.
Ambitious in its scope, he utilized 80,000 YouTube submissions by contributors from 192 countries to capture the banality of work, relationships and obligations as well as more harrowing experiences based on where a particular person grew up.
The film awakens a sense inside of a person that geography is every bit as much like winning the lottery.
Child of Rage
In 1990, HBO turned their cameras on a young girl, Beth Thomas, whose erratic and violent behavior left her adoptive parents unsure of what they should do.
As a perceived threat to them, her sibling and herself, Child of Rage isn’t easy viewing and at times you will have the urge to turn it off. However, it’ one of the most prominent examples of how past traumas inform the behaviors of people we all tend to put in the same box: dangers to society.
Deriving its name from the Salem Witch Trials, Witch Hunt focuses on the life of John Stoll, an average joe with a carpentry business and 5-year-old son, whose life was completely upended when he was charged with 97 criminal and sexual offenses against children.
Narrated by Sean Penn, the film expands upon his story to include other people who were wrongly accused, and how Bakersfield, California became the epicenter for false testimonies.
Sir David Attenborough’s BBC One documentaries have become the gold standard for nature films. In Kalahari, some of nature’s most resilient creatures are spotlighted as they navigate the pitfalls of two of the most prominent desert landscapes in the world.
- Featured/Main Image: BBC Two