From past events to the bottom of the ocean, or inside a jail run by prisoners, these films allow us to immerse ourselves in worlds far away from the comfort of our sofas.

From past events to the bottom of the ocean, or inside a jail run by prisoners, these films allow us to immerse ourselves in worlds far away from the comfort of our sofas.
Celebrating must-see documentaries from the last 50 years. Image from Grierson-winning Collective: Unravelling a Scandal.

Two of the films on our list journey deep inside institutions. Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire (Watch on All 4) took us inside Thornhill Community Academy in Dewsbury, with the help of 64 fixed rig cameras. While a huge production, the series still had quiet intimacy at its heart. In the final episode a student with a severe stammer has a breakthrough with the help of his English teacher - a scene that soon went viral on social and contributed to the series winning both an Emmy and a Grierson.

Educating Yorkshire: David Brindley and Grace Reynolds (2013)

 

Across the pond and behind bars, Louis Theroux spent time with the inmates of a massive jail in Miami, in the two-part series Louis Theroux: Miami Mega Jail (Watch on BBC iPlayer).Employing his usual anthropological inquisitiveness, he visits a maximum-security wing where the prisoners largely rule themselves in a “survival of the fittest” policy.

In 2019 viewers were presented with an unfolding scandal in Romania. In Collective (Watch on BBC iPlayer), director Alexander Nanau has remarkable access to the unlikely sports journalists investigating a night club fire - and why so many victims die in hospital afterwards. As the story expands to include a government minister, the incredible access continues with jaw dropping results.

 

Collective: Unravelling a Scandal: Alexander Nanau (2019)

 

Footage which had been left unseen in a basement for 50 years lies at the heart of Summer of Soul, nominated for two Grierson awards this year (Watch on Disney+). Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson’s Sundance award-winning film unearths the magic of the long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival. The mesmerising film interweaves contextual interviews with performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, in what the Observer call’s “one of the best concert movies of all time”.

Staying in New York, Jennie Livingstone’s 1990 film, Paris is Burning is a thoughtful exploration of race, class, gender and sexuality in America. Chronicling the late 80s and the African American, Latino, gay, and transgender communities involved, this film is a love song to the end of the "Golden Age" of New York City drag balls. (Watch on BBC iPlayer). 

History is reimagined in A House Through Time (Watch on BBC iPlayer), which ran over four series from 2018-2021.  Presenter and historian David Olusoga calls the award-winning series “an alternative history of Britain from within the walls of a single house,” as he uncovers intimate stories never recorded by history.

A House Through Time: Various (2018 – 2021)

 

In 2014’s Virunga (Watch on Netflix), Academy Award-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel takes us to Africa’s oldest national park. What began as a film about rangers rebuilding the park and protecting the native mountain gorillas, turned into an investigation of a nefarious British oil company, in what the LA Times calls “a work of heart-wrenching tenderness and heart-stopping suspense.”

Virunga: Orlando von Einsidel (2014)

 

Extraordinary species never before filmed teem through The Blue Planet (Watch on BBC iPlayer). The 2001 series, narrated by David Attenborough sets out to examine every aspect of ocean life, with astonishing cinematography. Made over five years - in cooperation with marine scientists all over the world - it has been sold to more than fifty countries.

The first episode of Vanessa Engle’s three-part 2008 BBC series Jews (Watch on BBC iPlayer) takes us into London’s Hasidic community through the unlikely tale of convicted drug smuggler, Jonathan Leibowitz. Now on release, and trying to reintegrate into the community, he gradually opens up to Engle, even showing her his heroin smuggling technique by swallowing a large gherkin.

 

Jews: Vanessa Engel (2008)

 

Finally, War in the Blood (Watch on Vimeo) allows us to observe the frontline of the race to find a cure for cancer. Arthur Carey’s 2020 Grierson-winning feature follows the progress of two London patients undergoing a new cancer treatment, gently and sensitively probing the difficulties in balancing hope and realism.

War in the Blood: Arthur Cary (2020)

 

What’s the most memorable place a documentary has taken you?

Published: 24 October 2022

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