Documentary Film

Man on Wire
Man on Wire

Non-fiction film has long proved itself to be every bit as diverse, dynamic, challenging and cinematic as its fictional sibling. From stories about the natural world, to polemical political stories about injustice, the medium has often been used to change attitudes and even policy in remarkable ways. Documentary cinema can also be fun and inspiring, opening up areas of the world we had no idea we were interested in, giving a voice to those rarely seen in local multiplexes. While documentaries should never be confused with telling the "truth", they can always open up new perspectives and dig further into stories than other mediums allow themselves time to do. Here are some of our favourites, along with other crucial titles in the history of this rich genre of filmmaking.

Night Mail

CertU

Age group7+

Duration23 mins

Night Mail(1936)

An incredibly successful fusion of music, sound and voice, you can almost feel the rhythmic clatter of metal upon metal.

One of the earliest documentaries, Night Mail is still hugely significant. British filmmaker John Grierson’s behind-the-scenes account of the Postal Service up and down the country presented a portrait of working-life in the country that had never been seen. A huge commercial hit, it paved the way for a strain of realism in British filmmaking that continues to this day.

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Bright, Bad and British!

CertUnclassified

Age group7+

Duration45 mins

Bright, Bad and British!(2015)

A collection of extraordinary footage from the BFI National Archive capturing the suffragette movement in the early 20th century.

The BFI’s unique archive has been mined to capture how suffragettes were represented on screen, from the 1890s until the partial granting of voting rights in 1918. Using a mixture of newsreel and comedy, this collection captures how film itself was used as a political tool, treading all over the stereotypes people have become accustomed to.

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Fires Were Started

CertU

Age group7+

Duration65 mins

Fires Were Started(1943)

Groundbreaking film about the day-to-day work of a group of firemen during the London Blitz of World War Two, with all parts played by real firemen.

During the Second World War, film was often used as a propaganda tool to showcase the heroism of ordinary people to the public. This is perhaps the most celebrated, a document of the working lives of a group of ordinary London fireman, justly celebrated for their heroic, unstinting bravery in the face of relentless bombing. An important, fascinating document of the time.

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A Hard Day's Night

CertU

Age group11+

Duration88 mins

A Hard Day's Night(1964)

Classic mockumentary chronicling the height of Beatlemania, showing how surprising and exciting pop music seemed to its fans in the 1960s.

When The Beatles burst onto the scene in the early 1960s the world had never seen a phenomenon like it. This playful mockumentary captures the height of Beatlemania, including life in their native Liverpool and scenes of what came to be known as Swinging London. Most of all though, it’s a great insight into the cheeky personalities underneath the mop tops.

Read more
An Inconvenient Truth

CertU

Age group11+

Duration95 mins

An Inconvenient Truth(2006)

Thought-provoking assessment on the causes and symptoms of climate change from former US presidential candidate Al Gore.

Documentaries are particularly suited to telling stories of climate change and environmental policy, shocking the audience with hard scientific facts about the impact of global warming and what should be done about it. One of the most impactful was An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former Vice President Al Gore which garnered worldwide attention and is about to receive a sequel

Read more
Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have)

CertU

Age group11+

Duration100 mins

Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have)(2002)

Heartwarming documentary looking at a small town school in France.

This French-language documentary focuses in on the start of the educational journey. The school in question comprises of just thirteen students, ranging from ages 4 to 12, and the film follows their schoolwork, homework and life outside the classroom. Inspirational teacher Georges Lopez is a clear role model and gets the youngsters excited about learning from a young age.

Read more
March of the Penguins

CertU

Age groupAll ages

Duration77 mins

March of the Penguins(2005)

Documentary capturing the remarkable journey the Emperor penguins of the South Antarctic make every winter.

Celebrating nature’s triumph over the odds, this documentary charts the penguins’ struggle to raise the next generation in their beautiful but often brutal habitat. This film explores a threatened landscape and opens up discussions on animals and the habitats they rely on to survive.

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Winged Migration

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration86 mins

Winged Migration(2001)

Oscar-nominated nature documentary that follows the paths of migrating birds from all over the globe.

This film follows the paths of migrating birds all over the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and all points in between. Light aircraft and even hot air balloons were used to capture some of the aerial shots - the film that results revealing how hard life can be for the birds, with predators (both human and animal), bad weather and other perils to contend with.

Read more
The Eagle Huntress

CertU

Age group7–14

Duration87 mins

The Eagle Huntress(2016)

Inspiring documentary about a 13 year-old girl seeking to defy tradition and become an eagle hunter in her isolated Mongolian community.

This inspirational documentary is a perfect introduction to the genre for young audiences and demonstrates what non-fiction films can do best – make us interested in worlds and cultures we previously knew nothing about, teaching us empathy along the way. In this case, it’s the remarkable of young eagle huntress Aisholpan and her life in the mountains of Mongolia.

Read more
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Night Mail

CertU

Age group7+

Duration23 mins

Night Mail(1936)

An incredibly successful fusion of music, sound and voice, you can almost feel the rhythmic clatter of metal upon metal.

One of the earliest documentaries, Night Mail is still hugely significant. British filmmaker John Grierson’s behind-the-scenes account of the Postal Service up and down the country presented a portrait of working-life in the country that had never been seen. A huge commercial hit, it paved the way for a strain of realism in British filmmaking that continues to this day.

Read more
Man With a Movie Camera

CertU

Age group14+

Duration68 mins

Man With a Movie Camera(1929)

An experimental early Soviet documentary that's still an incredible viewing experience today.

A significant piece of film history that at the time broke boundaries of documentary filmmaking. It features experimental camera shots and rapidly cut together images of everyday life in Russia with scenes of the film itself being filmed and edited, that offered a unique window into the country during its revolution if 1917.

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Bright, Bad and British!

CertUnclassified

Age group7+

Duration45 mins

Bright, Bad and British!(2015)

A collection of extraordinary footage from the BFI National Archive capturing the suffragette movement in the early 20th century.

The BFI’s unique archive has been mined to capture how suffragettes were represented on screen, from the 1890s until the partial granting of voting rights in 1918. Using a mixture of newsreel and comedy, this collection captures how film itself was used as a political tool, treading all over the stereotypes people have become accustomed to.

Read more
Fires Were Started

CertU

Age group7+

Duration65 mins

Fires Were Started(1943)

Groundbreaking film about the day-to-day work of a group of firemen during the London Blitz of World War Two, with all parts played by real firemen.

During the Second World War, film was often used as a propaganda tool to showcase the heroism of ordinary people to the public. This is perhaps the most celebrated, a document of the working lives of a group of ordinary London fireman, justly celebrated for their heroic, unstinting bravery in the face of relentless bombing. An important, fascinating document of the time.

Read more
Night And Fog

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration31 mins

Night And Fog(1955)

Documentary about the German concentration camps of World War II, with commentary written by a survivor of the camps.

Ten years after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, French filmmaker Alain Resnais visited Auschwitz and Majdenak, producing one of the first cinematic representations of the Holocaust. The results are emotionally unbearable at times, but it is also one of the most powerful and important documentaries ever made, and a crucial historical record.

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A Hard Day's Night

CertU

Age group11+

Duration88 mins

A Hard Day's Night(1964)

Classic mockumentary chronicling the height of Beatlemania, showing how surprising and exciting pop music seemed to its fans in the 1960s.

When The Beatles burst onto the scene in the early 1960s the world had never seen a phenomenon like it. This playful mockumentary captures the height of Beatlemania, including life in their native Liverpool and scenes of what came to be known as Swinging London. Most of all though, it’s a great insight into the cheeky personalities underneath the mop tops.

Read more
One Direction: This Is Us

CertPG

Age group7–14

Duration88 mins

One Direction: This Is Us(2013)

A behind the scenes look at One Direction, charting their growth from X Factor hopefuls to the biggest boy band in the world.

Taking pop mega fandom into the 21st century, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock goes behind the scenes of life in the world’s biggest boy band. From their X-Factor origins to touring the world, the film captures some of the fun and frivolity that comes with life on the road, but also some of the challenges faced in the modern era of celebrity culture.

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This Is Spinal Tap

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration79 mins

This Is Spinal Tap(1984)

This mockumentary about the worst - or quite possibly the best - rock group of all time is a hysterical cult classic.

This spoof documentary remains one of the funniest films of all time and continues to influence comedians across all mediums. Rerily reminiscent of real bands (although they'd never admit it), it follows the fortunes of an over-the-hill British band’s increasingly disastrous comeback tour, the fictitious Marty Barron drills down into the life of a rock star like nobody else.

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Koyaanisqatsi

CertU

Age group11+

Duration86 mins

Koyaanisqatsi(1982)

A hypnotic and wordless vision of our complex and endangered world, cut to a mesmerising score by composer Philip Glass.

An experimental documentary film made up of slow motion and time-lapse images of American landscapes across a period of time. From urban city sprawls to rural landscapes the images are set to a rhythmic soundtrack that builds momentum as the transforming images document the fascinating change in the landscape over time.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration82 mins

Exit Through the Gift Shop(2010)

Documentary - or is it? - about the mysterious graffiti artist Banksy.

Banksy is one of the most famous and distinctive artists working in Britain today. But few people know who he is, or what he looks like, his image partly being built on such mystery. This comedy documentary, directed by Banksy themselves, tells the story of an eccentric French amaetur film-maker's attempt to track Banksy down, only to have the camera turn back on its owner.

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Waste Land

CertPG

Age group11+

Duration99 mins

Waste Land(2010)

Artistic documentary that shows how human creativity can empower people facing extreme kinds of poverty and hardship.

British documentary maker Lucy Walker focuses her film on another well known artist – Brazilian Vik Muniz. His remarkable work is created on the world's largest rubbish dump in Rio de Janerio, Muniz employing local workers to pick up some of the rubbish and collectively transform it into something beautiful, remarkable and empowering for the entire community.

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Hitchcock/Truffaut

Cert12

Age group14+

Duration90 mins

Hitchcock/Truffaut(2015)

Documentary about the famous meetings between Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut, highlighting The Master of Suspense’s ongoing influence.

Two of the most significant filmmakers of all time came together in the early 1960s to dissect one another’s craft, producing one of the most influential film books ever written. This documentary tells the story of those meetings and is a must watch for any self-respecting cinephile – with great directors lining up to dissect key sequences from Hitch’s greatest films.

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5 Broken Cameras

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration94 mins

5 Broken Cameras(2011)

Thought-provoking documentary highlighting one Palestinian farmer's attempts to record the violence and injustice he witnesses on a daily basis.

This powerfully personal documentary not only draws attention to one of the world’s most problematic humanitarian crises, it also raises philosophical questions about the power, potential and perils of film and the responsibility of filmmakers.

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Of Time and the City

Cert12

Age group14+

Duration74 mins

Of Time and the City(2008)

Poetic, nostalgia-filled documentary by Liverpool-born director Terence Davies, looking back to the harsh post-war 1950s and 1960s in his home city.

An example of a poetic documentary, this is the Liverpool-born director’s love letter the the city he grew up in. Made up of home-movies, documentary footage and newsreels he wittily narrates his experience of the city and how it changed throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

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The Thin Blue Line

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration97 mins

The Thin Blue Line(1988)

Documentary attempting to overturn the miscarriage of justice which saw the wrong man convicted for the 1976 murder of a Dallas traffic officer.

Errol Morris had a radical impact on documentary style through his pioneering use of reconstructions and the “interrotron” – a technique where interviewees appear to look directly down the lens of the camera. This extraordinary story of a man wrongly convicted of murder in Dallas resulted in his release and influenced future formats such as Serial and Making a Murderer.

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Blackfish

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration83 mins

Blackfish(2013)

A harrowing documentary looking at the ethical dilemmas of keeping dangerous animals in captivity, taking its lead from one tragic incident.

Some documentaries change public attitudes in profound ways. Following this heart breaking account of the treatment of whales at the Sea World resort in Florida, public demand for the animals to be treated more humanely became increasingly vocal. This lead to a dramatic decline in attendance at Sea World and eventually a dramatic change in policy.

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An Inconvenient Truth

CertU

Age group11+

Duration95 mins

An Inconvenient Truth(2006)

Thought-provoking assessment on the causes and symptoms of climate change from former US presidential candidate Al Gore.

Documentaries are particularly suited to telling stories of climate change and environmental policy, shocking the audience with hard scientific facts about the impact of global warming and what should be done about it. One of the most impactful was An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former Vice President Al Gore which garnered worldwide attention and is about to receive a sequel

Read more
Bowling for Columbine

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration115 mins

Bowling for Columbine(2002)

Riveting documentary by controversial filmmaker Michael Moore on the Columbine High School mass shootings and the role of guns in the US.

Michael Moore remains perhaps the best known documentary filmmaker working today. Incendiary, provocative and controversial, his films are rallying calls to action for perceived social injustices. Nowhere was this more powerfully articulated than in this examination of US gun culture, winning Moore an Oscar and international attention for his controversial acceptance speech.

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Super Size Me

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration99 mins

Super Size Me(2004)

Very funny, though sometimes disturbing, documentary about what happens to filmmaker Morgan Spurlock when he eats nothing but McDonalds for 30 days.

For 30 days, Morgan Spurlock decided to eat nothing but McDonald’s to see what effect this would have on his body. The physical effects were perhaps predictably dramatic, but so was the impact on Spurlock’s wellbeing and state-of-mind. The impact of this very entertaining documentary led to McDonald’s introducing a wider variety of healthier options on their menu.

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Inside Job

Cert12

Age group14+

Duration104 mins

Inside Job(2010)

This smart Oscar-nominated documentary does a fine job of explaining the origins of the credit crunch in an entertaining and jaw-dropping manner.

The 2008 financial crisis and its causes remain a matter of great debate and confusion. This Academy Award winning film examined what really went on in clear, concise ways, without ever patronising its audience or sugar coating the impact. It is also a riveting piece of storytelling, as engrossing as any thriller, but perhaps harder hitting.

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Man on Wire

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration94 mins

Man on Wire(2008)

Gripping documentary about Phillipe Petit, who in 1974 walked on a tightrope between New York's Twin Towers, without permission from the authorities.

This gripping documentary is a mesmerising introduction to the genre. It uses a combination of archive footage, interviews and dramatic recreations to tell the astounding story of Phillippe Petit’s high-wire act, walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in the 1970s. The film also fascinatingly captures what sort of personality takes on such a mission!

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Grizzly Man

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration103 mins

Grizzly Man(2005)

This highly-engaging film documents naturalist Timothy Treadwell's ultimately fatal bond with the bears of Alaska.

German director Werner Herzog has been making masterpieces in fiction and non-fiction formats for many years. This documentary is one of his finest, the achingly moving, often disturbing story of Timothy Treadwell, a man who set out to live in the Alaskan wilderness with grizzly bears. The results are tragic but raise all sorts of issues and debates around his actions.

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Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have)

CertU

Age group11+

Duration100 mins

Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have)(2002)

Heartwarming documentary looking at a small town school in France.

This French-language documentary focuses in on the start of the educational journey. The school in question comprises of just thirteen students, ranging from ages 4 to 12, and the film follows their schoolwork, homework and life outside the classroom. Inspirational teacher Georges Lopez is a clear role model and gets the youngsters excited about learning from a young age.

Read more
Looking For Richard

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration112 mins

Looking For Richard(1996)

Documentary in which celebrated actor Al Pacino tries to find a new way of looking at the most-produced of Shakespeare's plays, Richard III.

Al Pacino directs and stars in this account of his rehearsal process before taking on the role of Richard III on stage. Drilling deep into the character and his motivations, the background to the story and Shakespeare’s own biography, this is a fascinating glimpse at the acting process and essential viewing for English and Theatre students studying the play.

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When We Were Kings

CertPG

Age group11+

Duration83 mins

When We Were Kings(1996)

Fascinating documentary about the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" boxing match in Zaire, which also sheds light on Muhammad Ali's enduring appeal.

One of the finest sports films ever made, this documentary tells the story behind the seminal Rumble In The Jungle, between boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Moving beyond the fight, its political context is also explored, but this is mostly a compelling portrait of the athlete dubbed “the greatest” at his most beguiling and eloquent.

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The Armstrong Lie

Cert15

Age group14+

Duration124 mins

The Armstrong Lie(2013)

A documentary chronicling sports legend Lance Armstrong's improbable rise and ultimate fall from grace.

Some sporting superstars achieve a fall from grace however. Documentarian Alex Gibney believed he was making a film about cyclist Lance Armstrong’s attempts to return to the top following treatment for cancer, but as details about his widespread doping became increasingly hard to ignore the result turns into a raw and candid account of Armstrong’s self-inflicted downfall.

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Senna

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration101 mins

Senna(2010)

Thrilling, adrenaline-fuelled doc charting the professional life of the late and legendary Formula One driver, Ayrton Senna.

Asif Kapadia injected style and energy into the genre with this remarkable account of the doomed final season of Formula 1 icon Ayrton Senna. With unprecedented access to in-car footage and by telling the story in chronological order without talking heads, the effect is the same as watching a riveting fiction thriller, except this is a true story with a tragic conclusion.

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Dreams Of A Life

Cert12

Age group14+

Duration95 mins

Dreams Of A Life(2011)

This is the intriguing but sad true story of a woman whose body was only found in her flat three years after she had died.

Carol Morley's film tells the desperately sad story of Joyce Vincent, a young woman living in North London during the 1980s who vanished, her body not being discovered in her flat for three years. Through tracking down members of the community who knew Joyce, Morley captures who this woman really is and gives an empowering voice to ordinary people rarely seen on the big screen.

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Life In A Day

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration91 mins

Life In A Day(2011)

Ambitious gathering of snippets from public lives that illustrates both the rich diversity and similarities of the human experience.

This unique documentary film is made up of YouTube videos crowdsourced from people around the world. All made on the same day - 24th July 2010 – the films are powerfully edited together by the director Kevin McDonald to give a snapshot of life on earth in that moment.

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The Cove

Cert12

Age group11+

Duration87 mins

The Cove(2009)

Documentary exposing the hidden impact of dolphin hunting in Japan.

This film focuses on aquatic environmental activism in a similar manner to Blackfish. Here, the focus is on Japan's dolphins, using hidden cameras to expose horrifying dolphin hunts that take place around idyllic coves. As the film continues, it emerges that many of these doplhins are also being sold off to marine parks and even passed of as whale meat to be sold as food.

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Winged Migration

CertU

Age group5–11

Duration86 mins

Winged Migration(2001)

Oscar-nominated nature documentary that follows the paths of migrating birds from all over the globe.

This film follows the paths of migrating birds all over the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic and all points in between. Light aircraft and even hot air balloons were used to capture some of the aerial shots - the film that results revealing how hard life can be for the birds, with predators (both human and animal), bad weather and other perils to contend with.

Read more
The Eagle Huntress

CertU

Age group7–14

Duration87 mins

The Eagle Huntress(2016)

Inspiring documentary about a 13 year-old girl seeking to defy tradition and become an eagle hunter in her isolated Mongolian community.

This inspirational documentary is a perfect introduction to the genre for young audiences and demonstrates what non-fiction films can do best – make us interested in worlds and cultures we previously knew nothing about, teaching us empathy along the way. In this case, it’s the remarkable of young eagle huntress Aisholpan and her life in the mountains of Mongolia.

Read more
He Named Me Malala

CertPG

Age group11–16

Duration87 mins

He Named Me Malala(2015)

Inspirational documentary about equal education advocate Malala Yousafzai, the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel peace prize.

A film demonstrating the importance and value of education which follows the journey of Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai. Despite being shot and almost killed by the Taliban in 2012, she continues to speak out against the unjust lack of opportunities for schooling – particularly for girls – across the world. An inspiring documentary full of hope and determination.

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