The 20 Most Controversial Documentaries of All Time

14. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, 2012)


When a film so confidently treads new ground within its genre, opinions are sure to be divided. Leviathan consists of a series of strange, kinetic positional perspectives, shot mostly with an extremely mobile (and waterproof) GoPro camera, onboard a fishing vessel somewhere in the North Atlantic.

The material itself is not particularly controversial, it is Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s composition and execution of the film which are the cause for debate. By negating narrative and almost every convention of documentary, Leviathan drags Cinéma Vérité down to unexplored depths. Whether the film is simply a product of hitting record and letting the camera do the work, or an immersive piece of art, is up to the viewer.

Constructed more as a sensory experience than an educational documentary, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film is an abstract, compellingly original addition to the documentary mode.


13. The House I Live In (Eugene Jarecki, 2012)

The House I Live In

The ‘War on Drugs’ is a familiar phrase, though what this movement in the USA actually stands for is far less clear. Eugene Jarecki’s latest documentary, The House I Live In exposes and attacks some elusive truths about the ‘War’.

One would expect that this government campaign to tackle the country’s drug culture would have at least made some positive impact, but apparently not so. The film claims that since the early 1970s, the consumption of illegal drugs has changed very little in the US, despite 45 million arrests, and over a trillion dollars committed to the cause. Jarecki traces these changing drug laws, and a number of others throughout America’s history, to deep-rooted racial and sociological issues.

With rather more subtlety than Michael Moore’s approach, The House I Live In interrogates the narratives of the American government, and provides a persuasive argument against the War on Drugs initiative.


12. Bus 174 (José Padilha, Felipe Lacerda, 2002)

Bus 174

A film about a poor Brazilian man, invisible in his own society, who on June 12, 2000, made himself be seen. On this day, on a busy street in Rio de Janeiro, Sandro do Nascimento hijacked the 174 Bus, and took its passengers hostage, in a scene that played out over four hours, to millions of viewers, live on Brazilian national television.

Inadequate police-control, itself a central theme of the film, meant that crowds were close enough to film the event, and every significant moment is shown in extensive detail.

Filmmakers José Padilha and Felipe Lacerda present every side of the story and, by exploring Nascimento’s arduous past, try to trace the factors which led up to the hijacking. Bus 174 exposes some difficult truths about the severe shortcomings in Rio’s law enforcement and prison system.

At the film’s climax, rather than cut the most graphic details of the conflict, when gunshots are exchanged, the harrowing footage is slowed and repeated from various angles. What is dubious is whether this probing approach is genuinely investigative, or whether it exploits the disturbing nature of the footage for the benefit of dramatic tension.


11. The Bridge (Eric Steel, 2006)

The Bridge

The Bridge is controversial in a number of complex and problematic ways. Eric Steel’s film is centred on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, known for its staggering (and increasing) annual suicide rate. Across the 12 months of shooting, Steel and his film crew captured footage of 23 people jumping from the bridge to end their own lives.

Beyond conducting the shoot upon the misinformed consent of the Bridge officials, the controversy of The Bridge lies more in the conceptual approach of the filmmakers. There is something intrinsically unsettling about a film production where its dramatic success relies upon the torment and trauma of its subjects, where a ‘good day’ of filming would be one where a suicide is caught on camera.

Perhaps even more questionable is the perspective of the viewer, encouraged by the formal structure of the film to be thrilled by the invasive suicide footage. This is a troubling position as a viewer, and an insensitive one as a filmmaker. If you then consider that many of the interviews were filmed before the interviewees knew that the deaths of their loved ones had been captured on film, The Bridge appears morbidly unique, unethical, and undoubtedly controversial.


10. Religulous (Larry Charles, 2008)


Larry Charles, director of Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), is in typically controversial form here. Religulous sends American comedian, Bill Maher, all around the world to speak with people from different strands of religious belief. Maher, and the film itself, both attempt to understand (or ridicule) the rationale behind these beliefs, and organised religion as a whole.

The comedy of Religulous would arguably be compromised had Charles balanced out the clearly one-sided agenda of the film, and given his interviewees a fighting chance. Maher’s scathing quick wit would be good to have on your side in any argument, but some critics felt that the documentary often descended into unchallenged rants by Maher, to the detriment of the film’s message.

Almost anyone with strong religious beliefs could be offended in some way by Religulous, and despite the film’s light-hearted humour, there are some offhanded generalisations that perhaps hinder rather than help. To other viewers these may be the biggest laughs in the film.


9. Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (Nick Broomfield, 2003)

Aileen Life and Death of a Serial Killer

In Nick Broomfield’s documentary, Aileen Wuornos approaches the final days leading up to her execution, after more than a decade on Death Row for murdering seven men.

In such a predicament, and evidently with a degree of mental instability, Aileen provides the film with a disturbing character portrait. However, it is the relationship between Broomfield and his subject that is more disconcerting and controversial.

In search of the truth about the case, and seemingly to achieve a more psychological engagement with Aileen, Broomfield gets emotionally closer to her than would be considered ethical in documentary filmmaking. He then abuses her trust for the sake of his material, by pretending he has switched the camera off at one point and, later in the film, by asking the wrong question and exposing his duplicity just moments before she is taken away to be executed.

This dishonest and questionable attitude, even considering Aileen’s atrocious crimes, is further complicated by the fact that Broomfield includes this final interview in the film. In his approach to documentary, deceiving his subjects seems a necessary part of the process.


8. Gimme Shelter (David Maysles, Albert Maysles, 1970)

Gimme Shelter

This iconic documentary, directed by David and Albert Maysles, follows the Rolling Stones on the final ten days of their North American tour in 1969, culminating in the ill-fated free concert at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California.

The show is memorable for all the wrong reasons, mired with violence, poor organisation, and ultimately the death of four people. One of these was Meredith Hunter who, after pulling out a gun in the middle of the crowd, was disarmed, stabbed and beaten to death by the Hells Angels, who acted as the rather unorthodox security for the 300,000 strong crowd.

The incident was caught on camera by the filmmakers, and became the focal point of their film – the ‘cinéma-vérité jackpot’ as critic Pauline Kael branded it. The tragic events elevated Gimme Shelter from a generic music documentary to an unforgettable moment in documentary history, but whether the Maysles brothers indirectly caused these events, as implied by Kael, is a complex and controversial accusation.

The extent to which the camera’s presence may have influenced the chaotic scenes in Gimme Shelter will never be entirely clear.