Fall down the YouTube rabbit hole.
Fall down the YouTube rabbit hole and you’ll find a goldmine of fascinating, heartwarming, and cringeworthy documentaries available in their entirety. Clicking on one can lead to hours of binge-viewing, stumbling from one true story to the next, the subjects ranging from unsettling conspiracy theories to supernatural possibilities that blow your mind.
Some are scary, some are sweet. Either way, they’re epic time-wasters available for free online. Get the popcorn and check out these great flicks.
The best documentaries on YouTube
1) The Internet’s Own Boy
Aaron Schwartz lived a lifetime online. As an internet pioneer, activist, writer, and computer programmer (among various other hats he wore), Schwartz had a meteoric rise and fall, one that involves the creation of Reddit, RSS, and Creative Commons. The Internet’s Own Boy documents his life, primarily using interviews with Schwartz’s family, friends, and peers, as well as footage of Schwartz himself. Schwartz was a prodigy—he took his own life at age 26, after being indicted for alleged computer crimes—and his story is as compelling as you’ll see in any documentary.
2) The Family That Walks on All Fours
This documentary by an English psychologist named Nicholas Humphrey follows a Turkish family where most of the members walk on all fours. The debate sparks a conversation about the possibility of human devolution. —Gaby Dunn
3) 3D Printed Guns
This Vice documentary follows Cody Wilson, the man at the center of the 3D-printed gun revolution. With the advent and popularization of 3D printers, gun control may be moot. Wilson, then a college student, shows how he can “print” illegal firearms right in his home. The government has no way of stopping or regulating this practice. In the wake of the Newtown and other school shootings, this documentary is particularly poignant and scary. —G.D.
4) Child of Rage
This 1989 documentary follows Beth Thomas, a young girl who, as a result of sexual abuse when she was 1 year old, wants to kill her brother and adoptive parents. She’s interviewed by researchers who ask her about snapping baby birds’ necks, stealing knives from her mother, and excessively masturbating until her vagina bled. Today, Thomas is a nurse and an advocate for abused children. She’s gone through a lot of therapy and purports to be healed. But in this documentary, she coldly describes wanting to murder her family by stabbing them at night. It’s very unnerving. —G.D.
5) The Scariest Drug in the World
Vice reporter Ryan Duffy travels to Colombia to find the world’s scariest drug, scopolamine. The drug keeps the person lucid but makes them amenable to doing whatever you say. It’s been used to convince people to rob themselves and hand the money to strangers, as a rape drug, and as a way to humiliate people. It’s essentially “chemical hypnosis,” where you lose total control of your actions, despite being completely awake. The stories from people who’ve been drugged with scopolamine are harrowing. —G.D.
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6) Too Ugly For Love
This is a multipart documentary about average people who suffer from body dysmorphic disorder. The pain these people feel over their looks may seem surreal given a lot of them are normal to attractive. But they really do not see in the mirror the reality of their appearance. You’ll never think of your own “fat days” the same way again. —G.D.
7) The Boy Who Lived Before
Cameron is a 5-year-old Scottish boy who remembers a past life on the island of Barra. He recounts details that end up matching a real house and family in the town. His face when he returns to the house he “remembers” is haunting. It’s a really interesting look at what children might remember from being reincarnated. —G.D.
8) The Boy Who Sees Without Eyes
Ben Underwood is a young boy who had his eyes removed at age 3 due to retinal cancer. As a result, he uses echolocation (like dolphins do) to “see” without seeing. He plays basketball, skateboards, and rollerblades. He uses sound to “see” and gets around perfectly well. Some have compared him to a real life X-Men character. Ben tragically passed away from his retinal cancer in 2009, but this documentary gives a look at his incredible abilities. —G.D.
9) This Is the Zodiac Speaking
The story of the Zodiac serial killer is riveting but terrifying—especially since he was never officially caught after terrorizing San Francisco for years. Not only did the Zodiac kill, he taunted the police openly for years and they still weren’t able to apprehend him. —G.D.
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10) Just Melvin, Just Evil
This documentary follows years of sexual and physical abuse across multiple families by their shared step-father, Melvin. It’s made by one of the families’ sons, who confronts Melvin about what he did. Melvin denies he hurt any of his step-children, but they all have memories of being abused by him for over a decade. Some accuse him of marrying their mother only because she already had young daughters for him to prey on. It’s one of the most manipulative and expansive stories of child abuse ever told on film, and you’ll be outraged by what happens in the end. —G.D.
11) Inside North Korea
This three-part Vice documentary takes founder Shane Smith on a trip to North Korea that unveils some of the most confounding facts about the company and its relationship to foreign travelers. There have been several follow-ups on the situation in North Korea by Vice and other outlets since, but this take on the restrictions, pageantry, and strife in the hermit country is a must-watch. —Rae Votta
12) The Men Who Killed Kennedy
For a crash-course on how to get censured by the British Parliament and draw the ire of two former presidents, look no further than The Men Who Killed Kennedy. Multiple conspiracy theories surround the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (“theories” being the operative word), and this nine-part British documentary series covers many of them, in a way that some criticized as blurring the line between facts and speculation.
The most troubling theory—that President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind Kennedy’s assassination—surfaces in the ninth episode. After “The Guilty Men” aired in 2003 on the History Channel, the network and its parent companies got in a whole heap of trouble with Johnson’s former aides, including former Johnson press secretary Bill Moyer, along with former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. In a letter to network executives, President Ford called the charges made in the documentary, “’the most damaging accusations ever made against a former vice president and president in American history.”
The controversy behind The Men Who Killed Kennedy didn’t begin stateside; the series’ questionable research ethics resulted in documentarian Nigel Turner getting censured by the British Parliament after the initial two-part series aired in 1988. Watch The Men Who Killed Kennedy with the discerning eye it deserves, and you’ll give your critical thinking skills a real workout. —Amrita Khalid
13) A Brief History of Time
A Brief History of Time is a documentary on the life of Stephen Hawking, the famous astrophysicist whose best-selling book with the same name explained black holes and Big Bang theory to everyday audiences. Unlike the book, this documentary focuses on Hawking himself. Directed by Errol Morris of The Thin Blue Line, the film includes interviews with Hawking’s mother, sister, students, professors, and legions of his friends and acquaintances. The film offers a candid look into the life of the renowned scientist as he lives with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which has left him confined to a wheelchair and only able to speak through a complex computer technology that he operates with his cheek. —G.D.
14) The Trial: A Murder in the Family
This BBC documentary starts off in typical fashion, introducing us to the crime: a husband stands accused of murdering his wife. The doc tracks the husband’s trial, but there’s a wrinkle: the defendant, victim, and even some of the police involved are actually actors, but the jury is comprised of real people. It’s a fascinating premise. Part documentary, part drama, and part social experiment, A Murder in the Family is must-see.
15) A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity
If you’ve ever considered freeing yourself from the rigors of modern living or making changes to help the environment, watch A Simpler Way: Crisis as Opportunity. It’s about an Australian community out to lighten Mother Earth’s load by living… simpler. Tiny houses, gardens—it’s all covered. Watching a group of people work together makes A Simpler Way more interesting because there’s more discussion about what’s going on, compared to watching a single person working toward a goal. That discussion and the interviews with various experts help form a compelling case.
16) Fentanyl: The Drug Deadlier Than Heroin
The rise of opioids in America is getting more and more attention, especially as it pertains to potential changes to the healthcare system. Fentanyl is an extremely potent opiate, one that can cause an overdose simply by touching your skin (according to a recent episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily). The drug gets the deep dive treatment from Vice, and the results are about as harrowing as you can imagine. Hard as it is to watch, it’s an important topic and more people should know about it.
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17) Lockdown: Kids Behind Bars
Kids Behind Bars cuts right to the heart of the question of whether people can be rehabilitated. Its focus is the Youthful Offenders System, a Colorado jail that aims to set violent youth offenders on a better path. If the kids in the system make the changes to their life that they need to, they have a path to a second chance. If not, then they’ll be on their way to adult prisons, mostly to be lost forever. Kids Behind Bars is a frank look at a stark reality: Can people change? Do violent offenders even deserve a second chance? There are no clear cut answers here, but watching the officers and inmates search for them is compelling.
18) Charlottesville: Race and Terror
Vice News had a front row seat at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that culminated in an act of domestic terrorism that left one person dead. The 22-minute doc takes viewers behind the scenes to detail some of the planning that went into the rally. Then it takes you to the front lines where the tension and danger is palpable. The doc immediately went viral and Vice and HBO made it available for all on YouTube. In trying times, Race and Terror is important for how it exposes the toxic mindset that spurs division and propagates dangerous rhetoric.
19) Bill Nye’s Global Meltdown
This National Geographic series features Bill Nye at his best: breaking down science and bringing knowledge to the people. The challenge here is that the topic is climate change, so the people he’s trying to help are the least receptive. Bye confronts climate change and its deniers head on. The result is equal parts frustrating, informative, and entertaining. With the help of the Governator himself, Nye sets out to help climate deniers get in touch with reality.
20) Steroids in Sports
Steroids in Sports takes a clinical look at the use of steroids (in sports, of course). It explains what the substances are and how they affect the body. The doc also shows why they’re effective in sports. It features interviews with people on various sides of the matter. Between the players and doctors, a comprehensive picture is presented. There’s more nuance to the conversation than you would think, as the issue is much more complex than some players wanting to cheat. Despite whatever you think you know about steroids, the documentary will teach you some new things in under an hour.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
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