10 Great Documentaries You Can Watch Online For Free Today

Financing in documentary film is an issue that we at The Whicker’s World Foundation have become increasingly aware of over the past few months. With our Cost of Docs survey revealing that 87% of filmmakers don’t make enough profit to recover the costs of filming, it seems that today a passion for documentary comes at a price. In our interview with Inside the Chinese Closet director Sophia Luvara last week, the visionary IDFA premiering filmmaker expressed one of her great frustrations with the world of documentary film and its restrictive spectatorship;

“In recent years financing independent one-off documentaries has become more and more difficult, broadcasters are reluctant to invest in risky and long-term projects.

“There are so many great docs out there but people don’t know about them, and even when they do know it’s always hard to find a way to watch them.”

This comment in particular got us thinking; we know that it’s costly to make a documentary in today’s market (with the average cost an eye-watering £116,000), but is it also difficult to simply find and watch great films without having to fork out? With the proliferation of popular streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime demanding up to £6.99 a month to view their libraries, is access becoming an increasingly exclusive issue?

With this question in mind we embarked on an online mission to source 10 great documentaries that you can watch today for free. From Oscar-winning masterpieces to innovative indie web series, we are confident that you shouldn’t have to be earning the big bucks to be inspired and enthralled by documentary film. Here’s 10 of our favourites available online for free…

1. Paris is Burning

This classic 1990 documentary is free to watch on Youtube and promises an hour of rambunctious music and dancing mixed with touching memories of 1980s drag culture. Filmed in the smokey ballrooms and backstreet bars of Manhattan, Paris is Burning brought to light a subculture that had until then been hidden in plain sight. Competing against each other to become the voguing champions of the New York drag scene, the film’s stars reveal lives that are both harrowing and triumphant, their backgrounds as thieves and hustlers contrasted by lavish ballroom personas. Willi Ninja, one of the film’s stars, went on to become the so called “godfather of voguing” after its release, his immortal quote “I want to take you to the real Paris, and make the real Paris burn” becoming the mantra of a drag generation.

Voguing © Flickr/miguelonmx
Voguing © Flickr/miguelonmx

2. Bitter Lake

The latest work of cult filmmaker Adam Curtis, this 2015 documentary leaves no stone unturned regarding the West’s historic relations with countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Through its creative blending of music, sound, historic BBC archive footage and political theory, Curtis asks his viewers a dark question regarding the Western war mentality; Have we come to over-simplify global politics as a simple dichotomy of Hero vs Villain, Good vs Evil? And  if so, what impact does this condensing of complex political theory have on the countries that Europe and America negotiate with? A constant critic of governmental power and the way it is exercised on a global spectrum, Curtis’s Bitter Lake is an introspective piece of documentary gold bound to leave its viewers questioning just about everything. What more? It’s free to view today on BBC iPlayer. 

3. The Islamic State

How VICE reporter Medyan Dairieh managed to gain such close access to one of the world’s most coveted groups, the so-called ‘Islamic State’ fighters, we will never know. In this 42 minute film, Dairieh speaks to IS soldiers in the captured Syrian city of Raqqa and gains exclusive footage of the front line. Undoubtedly harrowing, The Islamic State documents the military strategy of the group through one-on-one interviews with extremists and their families. Some of the most horrifying interviews come from young children living under IS control. One 11 year old states clearly that he wishes to “swear allegiance to Abu Bakhr al-Baghdadi” and the pint sized son of a Belgian defector exclaims his ambition to become a jihadist and kill the so-called “infidels” in Europe. This truly eye-opening documentary, one of the first to reveal the faces of so-called IS fighters, is available to watch in full here at VICE.com

Kurdish Fighter on IS Front Line © Flickr/KurdishStruggle
Kurdish Fighter on IS Front Line © Flickr/KurdishStruggle

4. Strolling

What better way to fill 10 minutes of idle time than by learning about a plethora of profound topics from sexuality to mental health, afro-futurism to feminist men, all for free? A cultural mishmash exploring the black experience around the world from the UK to Jamaica, breakthrough director Cecile Emeke’s short docu-series Strolling is one of the best currently on YouTube. Radiantly shot with a purposeful use of diverse colours and textures, the series is as visually arresting as it is thematically rich. Emeke travels the world using a handheld camera to capture intimate interviews with young black people, discussing their experiences of the world and the mindsets that drive them. Powerful and searching with soundtracks that will ring in your head all day, there’s nothing not to love about this innovative young director’s work.

5. Amy

Asif Kapadia’s Academy Award-winning account of the tragic life and death of singer Amy Winehouse is perhaps not one you would expect to watch for free. Available on demand at Channel 4Amy combines original home video with archive footage from the media to create a portrait of an artist torn between her love of music and the pernicious impact of fame. Interview subjects include some of Amy’s most beloved childhood friends, their sorrowful memories striking a dissonant chord with the mocking criticisms of celebrities such as Graham Norton and Frankie Boyle. A skilful collage of footage, the film is one that dispels the myth of Winehouse as a hopeless, drug-addled popstar. Instead, it reveals the truth behind the singer’s catastrophic descent in to drug and alcohol addiction, exposing the sad psychological battle of a talented musician haunted by stardom.

Amy Winehouse © Flickr/InSoDay
Amy Winehouse © Flickr/InSoDay

6. Inside Obama’s Whitehouse

A glimpse through the keyhole of one of the world’s most well known buildings, Inside Obama’s Whitehouse makes for enthralling and at times surprising viewing. Available now on BBC iPlayer, the first episode of the coming four part series focuses on Obama’s first 100 days as president. With interviews from key political players including David Axelrod, Nansi Pelosi and Jim Messina alongside Obama himself, the films looks back on the passing-over of the financial crisis and the way in which it was handled by the government. Revealing the tough decisions made by Obama and the sometimes paralysis of action that even presidents face, Inside Obama’s Whitehouse is an informative insight in to the US political system.

Obama © Flickr/Nasahqphoto
Obama © Flickr/Nasahqphoto

7. Dreams of a Life

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you suddenly disappeared? How long would it take for someone to notice? For Joyce Vincent, who died in her North London flat in 2003, it took three years before her body was discovered… still surrounded by the Christmas gifts she’d been wrapping at the time, with the television on in the background. This documentary-drama is a portrait of Joyce’s life, part imagined, part reconstructed through interviews with friends, acquaintances and former partners. The film explores how we can play different roles for different people in our lives, as well as delving into life in 1980’s London, including race issues, the music scene and urban life. Starring Fresh Meat‘s Zawe Ashton, this documentary is available on Channel 4 On Demand.

8. This is What Winning Looks Like

Ben Anderson’s 2013 documentary follows US Marine forces as they train security forces in Afghanistan, who will take control once US troops withdraw. The film exposes the shocking incompetence of security forces during the handover of authority, including corruption, killing and sexual molestation of children, drug addiction, and false imprisonments. While many of the Afghan security forces see no problem with their activities, others want to ensure that law is enforced justly, stabilising a nation rocked by decades of conflict. The US Marines who want to achieve their goal of a seamless handover struggle to do so, with their roles reduced due to the troop withdrawal. Despite obvious difficulties, US and British Forces feel under pressure to broadcast positive reports from Helmand, as their focus turns to – in Anderson’s own words – “getting out and saving face”. The documentary can be watched on Vice’s YouTube channel here.

Flickr CC / The U.S. Army
US Army Officer observes an Afghan National Army trainee, 2008. Flickr CC / The U.S. Army

9. Sugar Coated

Anyone with a sweet tooth might want to look away now. This documentary explores the politics surrounding the sugar industry, challenging their claims that sugar isn’t toxic. With rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and childhood fatty liver disease on the rise, the film asks how the sugar business can continue to deflect responsibility for the issues. Disturbing facts emerge after the discovery of a secret industry “playbook” in a 1970’s sugar company factory, which reveals that the industry has been employing tactics similar to those used by Big Tobacco to dismiss health fears. Sugar Coated, pits the sugar industry against scientists, scholars and lawyers in a (bitter) dispute over an increasingly widespread issue.

Just a spoonful of sugar. Flickr CC / Gunilla G
Just a spoonful of sugar. Flickr CC / Gunilla G

10. The Estate We’re In

This new BBC One documentary reveals another side of the UK housing crisis – from the perspective of those who it impacts the most. Filmed over a year at the West Hendon Estate in Barnet, the documentary follows the lives of its residents, who have been told that they will have to move out to make way for a multi-million pound luxury housing development. Members of the community, some of whom have lived on the estate for decades, come together to save their homes and campaign against the regeneration project. While Barnet Council argue that private investment is the only way to regenerate the “grotty” estate building, residents claim that the council is forcing low income families out of London and even go as far to call it “social cleansing.” The picture this film paints represents a microcosm of a much larger issue, as it asks questions of how best to handle the housing crisis and the people affected by it. It’s on BBC iPlayer here.

Have any more suggestions for free to view documentaries? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook.  Happy viewing!

By Megan O’Hara and Robbie Pyburn