20 Of The Best Documentary Shorts You Can Watch Online

10. Stonebridge Park (1981)

Over the years, British filmmaker Patrick Keiller has developed his own distinctive style of documentary and during the 1990’s revolutionised the film .

Stonebridge Park is separated into two parts. The first part, the narrator (who is never seen, the film is viewed from his perspective only) contemplates robbing his former boss and describes the events that lead him to consider such an act. As the narration goes on the camera roams around the nearby road junction, where the protagonist is waiting to make his move. The second part is set after the man has burgled his former boss, where he is now panicked and reflecting on what he had done moments ago.

Why it’s essential?

An incredible mix of documentary and narrative, any Patrick Keiller film is essential for anyone interested in alternative documentaries.


9. The Forgotten Faces (1961)

The Forgotten Faces is a docu-drama reconstruction of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Director Peter Watkins (Punishment Park and The War Game) develops his methods of naturalistic reconstruction that he attempted in his previous short films. Using techniques you would find in French New Wave and Italian neo-realist films; like non-professional actors, on-location settings and filmed with natural lighting.
Watkins said:

“Most of my feelings about this kind of what I would call documentary or reconstruction of reality came from studying photographs. I think that’s where my feelings about grain and people looking into the camera came from … especially those very strong photographs taken in the streets of Budapest and published in Paris Match and Life. That was my first in-depth encounter with an actual situation …”

Why it’s essential?

The master of the docu-drama, Peter Watkins is an essential filmmaker for any film fan to sink their teeth into and this short gem is a solid example of the man’s undeniable genius.


8. Black Breakfast (2008)

‘Black Breakfast’ is a peculiarly pessimistic look at the alleged Chinese government’s disregard of its people’s health and safety, whilst executing industrial operations.

There are no interviews or narration; it just follows a tourist in China looking to find hidden archaeological treasures. The woman finds herself at odds with the local pollution caused by the industrial waste. The film was created to champion global human rights and was part of a bigger project to support the cause.
The film is a simple montage, but holds so much power and beauty that it surpasses its minimal narrative.

Why it’s essential?

Directed by Jia Zhangke, who is known for highlighting important social issues in mainland China in the most faint and graceful ways.


7. A Valparaíso (1962)

I’m sure when I tell you this film is a travelogue of Valparaiso in Chile, you would disregard it straight away. If you were to give it a chance however, you would see that it is one of the most beautifully depicted journeys ever captured on celluloid.

It is a geographic illustration of everyday occurrences of Valparaiso, contrasted with more concerning issues, like the poor residents struggling to obtain sufficient amounts of water supplies. It is not all doom and gloom though; the film depicts the more vibrant activities, like members of the community dancing, circuses, a race course and children feeding sealions at the harbour.

The film’s second half takes a drastically different direction, highlighting the towns disturbing pirate past. The two halves set up a captivating contrast, which puts into account the role our history plays in defining who we are now.

Why it’s essential?

Without a shadow of a doubt, A Valparaiso is one of the most profound poetic documentaries out there.


6. The Train Stop (2001)

In this 24 minute magnum opus we travel to a small, isolated train station deep within rural Russia at night. The camera never leaves the room, but we hear the faint sounds of the clattering locomotives and harsh weather conditions outside. The tiny wooden station is bounded by snow and inside, everyone is asleep. The camera slowly glides over the sleeping commuters; each person is in a different posture or position. The vibrant sound of the people snoring contrasts with the stillness of the visuals, creating an eerie and surreal tone. It is almost as if time continues to go on outside, but inside the train station time is frozen at a halt.

Why it’s essential?

According to the director Sergei Loznitsa, the film is a metaphor for the contemporary Russian people’s ‘falling out of time’ mentality.

Metaphor or not, it shows us that documentary isn’t just a tool to inform us about data and worldly problems; it can also be just as effective as drama in illustrating an atmosphere.


5. The Quiet Mutiny (1970)

John Pilger’s iconic film debut The Quiet Mutiny was filmed at Camp Snuffy in 1970 and produces a character study of several soldiers during the Vietnam War. For the first time it revealed the unstable confidence among the Western troops and how it lead eventually led to mutiny.

The film analyses each character beautifully, never making direct political statements. It purely relies on the characters frame of mind and morale to shape its criticisms on the war.

Combining interviews with frontline footage of Vietnam, it portrays the developing fractures between the US military officials and the soldiers who were physically fighting the war on the ground.

Why it’s essential?

It completely changed the public-media perception of the Vietnam War and contributed significantly to the US troops withdrawing.


4. Listen to Britain (1942)

No narration or interviews, just images and sounds of wartime Britain edited together like a cinematic orchestra.

Influential filmmaker Humphrey Jennings was known for his more ambiguous and poet approaches towards war time propaganda documentary. Listen to Britain gives us an unorthodox insight into Britain during WWII. Shot in 1942, the short film masterfully selects the small details of ordinary people’s lives to produce an affecting and rhythmic portrait.

Why it’s essential?

Listen to Britain is undoubtedly one of the most lyrical documentaries ever made, but it was also one of the main inspirations for Britain’s Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, which would later evolve into the British New Wave.


3. Talking Heads (1980)

Polish film legend Krzysztof Kieslowski interviewed people from different ages, professions and social statuses, asking them all two questions. 1 Who they are? and 2. What they want from life?

The interviews are edited together in age order, starting from youngest to oldest. We slowly see the gradual changes in the human mind set, how our views of self and purpose, no matter what class we are from, changes during maturity.

Why it’s essential?

One of the most influential short documentaries available for public viewing, proving a documentary can still be intense and incisive even with a simplistic format. The film’s technique has been replicated by short documentary filmmakers for years after, even to the extent of it being remade in 2009 by documentarian Gabe Van Lelyveld.

It also holds a historical significance, being a massive milestone in the late, great Krzysztof Kieslowski’s career.


2. O Dreamland (1953)

A 1953 documentary directed by British film legend Lindsay Anderson and his cameraman/assistant, John Fletcher. Shot on a single 16mm camera and a cheap audiotape recorder, the film marked a new generation of British filmmakers.

Anderson didn’t use the footage for a while, not until he attached it with the first Free Cinema movement programme. Free Cinema (for those who do not know) was a documentary movement that eventually lead the launch of the British New Wave.

Shot in black-and-white, the film shows us an exploration of a funfair park called Dreamland in Kent, UK. At the time its replacement of narration commentary with background noises and music, was quite unusual in the British documentary scene (Something not done properly since Mr. Jennings himself).

One of Free Cinema’s key supporters Gavin Lambert said, “Everything is ugly… It is almost too much. The nightmare is redeemed by the point of view, which, for all the unsparing candid camerawork and the harsh, inelegant photography, is emphatically humane. Pity, sadness, even poetry is infused into this drearily tawdry, aimlessly hungry world.”

Why it’s essential?

One of the most influential and significant films of the free cinema movement in Britain, even if you do not appreciate it as a piece of film, its historical importance is undeniable.


1. Junkopia (1981)

‘Junkopia’ is a short experimental documentary by the late master Chris Marker that depicts illimitable and strange inanimate objects that are contrasted with the contemporary World. Seemingly banal things are merged together into a modulated montage; cars, freeways, ambient sounds of cities and towns. In the background of the forgotten island the film has been studying, we see a large metropolis, living its usual fast lifestyle. The small island watches the city from a distance, as if it were a ghost watching the living from limbo.

Why it’s essential?

Any Chris Marker film is essential, maybe even more so after his passing. Junkopia may not be as famous as Markers earlier film La Jetee, but holds a similar amount of significance, and broadens our horizons to questions like “what is the purpose of documentary?”

Author Bio: Sarah Prokop is a UK based Film studies lecturer who is currently partaking in a PhD studying femininity and homosexuality in East Asian cinema. She has also had numerous articles and published on Asia’s gay film scenes and movements.