The 20 Most Controversial Documentaries of All Time

7. Bowling For Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)

Bowling for Columbine

At Columbine High School in 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed thirteen people. Michael Moore responded to the massacre with Bowling for Columbine. The film critiques the social and political conditions that influence crimes of this sort within the USA, the country with the highest rate of gun-related killings in the world.

Moore shows just how easy it is to legally acquire a firearm in the states, and asks what causes a society to retain such inward aggression. The filmmaker aims his sights on the American government, and their military involvement with foreign conflicts. He considers the involvement of the media, retail companies like Kmart, and institutions like the National Rifle Association, though ‘consider’ is perhaps the wrong word.

By badgering Kmart employees, and practically interrogating the NRA President, Charlton Heston, in his own home, Moore adds to the obnoxious, scathing persona for which he has become notorious. He is audacious and convincing in his arguments against America’s social climate, which centres on a perpetual cycle of fear and consumption, ingrained in the public consciousness.

As well as breaking international box-office records for a documentary, the film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2002, in front of a divided audience of boos and cheers, and brought Michael Moore international fame. Few directors embrace controversy in quite the same way.


6. Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)


Just ten years after the end of the Second World War, Alain Resnais completed Night and Fog, a poetic meditation on the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. Resnais combines film recorded in 1945 at the liberation of the camps, with his own footage of the abandoned sites at Auschwitz and Majdanek. The result is understandably harrowing. The stock footage details the torturous depravity of the prisoners, both those rescued and of the many whose corpses are heaped into mass graves; and these pictures become indelible.

Due to censorship issues, some shots of corpses were taken out of the film, and one shot of a supposedly French officer was obscured, to mitigate any association of France’s involvement with the Holocaust. There were also efforts by the German embassy in France, to stop the film being premiered at Cannes Film Festival, but these were met almost entirely with protest by the French press, who realised its historical importance.

With words spoken in voiceover by Michel Bouquet, scripted by Jean Cayrol, who survived the Mauthausen-Gusen camp, Night and Fog takes on a profundity that further enhances the power of the traumatic images.


5. Capturing the Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki, 2003)

Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans explores the traumatic story of the Friedman family, whose seemingly ordinary existence collapses when father, Arnold, and the youngest of his three sons, Jesse, are both accused of child molestation. Andrew Jarecki’s seminal film tries to figure out whose truth to believe, by presenting a remarkable amount of the family’s poignant home-movie footage, and through retrospective interviews.

The film retells the story from early in Arnold’s life to the present, through a plethora of different perspectives, including members of the Friedman family, several of their alleged victims, lawyers, detectives, judges and figures in the media. This feature in itself is arguably the greatest success of the documentary, but also the most considerable cause of controversy.

By structuring the film as a labyrinth of contradicting opinions, Jarecki places the viewer at the centre, and asks ‘Who do you believe?’ Quite admirably, and controversially, his own judgements about the Friedmans are left ambiguous, although there were unfounded rumours that Jarecki provided funding for Jesse’s appeal.

Any attempt, in documentary, to evoke sympathy for someone convicted of heinous crimes will inevitably cause controversy, but Capturing the Friedmans ignores generalisations, favouring the analysis of subjective details.


4. Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004)

Fahrenheit 9-11

Michael Moore is the king of controversy, and his 2004 documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11 is his most contentious film to date.

Three years after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, 2001, Moore’s film renewed debates about a trauma still painfully fresh in public sensibility. He confronts the Bush administration, accusing them of exploiting the 9/11 attacks, and subsequent cultural paranoia instilled by the mass media, to advance the government’s own agendas with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

George W. Bush is depicted as inarticulate, half-witted and utterly undeserving of his presidency, and the film neatly packages the numerous strands of corruption upon which he was elected and served. Further controversy surrounded some of the allegations made by Moore, accused of distorting truths for his own piece of propaganda, which aimed to deny Bush’s re-election in 2004.

In the documentary world Michael Moore is a powerful figure and highly valued as a political activist. His controversial style and rhetoric are his signatures and understandably divide critics. Fahrenheit 9/11 garnered huge critical acclaim, winning the prestigious Palme d’Or award at Cannes Film Festival, notably with a 20-minute ovation at the screening. It smashed US box-office records for documentary with over $222m grossed worldwide, and reached a mass audience with its messages.


3. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)


As the credits roll at the end of The Act of Killing, 49 names appear as ‘Anonymous’, all crew members who fear the repercussions of involvement with this documentary, including one co-director who worked on the production for 8 years.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s monumental film confronts a dark moment in Indonesia’s history, from 1965-66, where hundreds of thousands of communists were massacred by government-led paramilitaries and gangsters. Yet even in the mid-2000s, many of these men enjoy respected celebrity status in the country, with government impunity.

The film’s most important component is the ‘Act’ itself, centred on many of these killers, more than 40 years later, re-enacting the killings as scenes in a movie. Oppenheimer’s camera films the “making-of” this film, under the guise that it will be a celebration of their ‘achievements’. The bravery and guile in the filmmaker’s approach is arguably The Act of Killing’s greatest success and most outrageous controversy. The film’s revelations are often staggering and appalling, mostly reached through Oppenheimer’s central deception of his subjects, which raises questions of morality and consent.

Since its release, The Act of Killing continues to have a significant cultural impact in Indonesia, but to what extent the end justifies the controversial means is a difficult and ongoing debate.


2. Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2006)

Lake of Fire

Whatever your views on abortion, this film is sure to question them to some degree. Lake of Fire gives a convincing voice to both the ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Pro-Choice’ sides of the debate, in equal measure and with respect. To the director, Tony Kaye’s credit, his approach remains actively unbiased to any one view, and the issues are considered in their full complexity. His film, a 17-year project, serves and confronts the topic of abortion through a vast collection of opinions, from agnostics to extremist activists on either side.

With this subject, controversy is implicit, however there are parts of the film which will undoubtedly shock with potent excess. Graphic footage of an actual abortion, with close-up detail of the terminated foetus is truly harrowing and that extremity should be stressed before recommending the film. Having said that, the distressing nature of such footage reflects the images used as propaganda by some of the anti-abortion campaigners.

Lake of Fire is a compassionate and careful exploration of this ongoing conflict. Ultimately it is a very tough film to watch, yet one that stands as a crucial example of documentary’s importance in negotiating social stigma and ethical questions about humanity.


1. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

Titicut Follies

Frederick Wiseman is the epitome of a documentarian. His films are essential and illusive fragments of film history. His first documentary, Titicut Follies is difficult to get hold of, and even more difficult to watch, but entirely worth the effort.

Wiseman records, in vérité style, the stark living conditions within a Massachusetts correctional facility for the criminally insane, where the abuse of patients seems habitual. The picture is bleak and lives long in the memory. It was made in 1967 and taken out of distribution a year later, for Wiseman’s alleged violations of the privacy and dignity of patients. This ban on general viewing was finally lifted in 1991, but the ethical issues involved remain as important today as in the 1960s.

The definition of consent in documentary filmmaking is vague, as the long-term consequences are impossible to predict, but considering the potential instability of those involved here, the issue becomes yet more complex. Wiseman always maintained that he received the necessary consent from the patients or their guardians, and that the complaints only arose after the film’s release, when the state-funded institution appeared in such a negative light.

Titicut Follies is now celebrated as a monument in documentary history, and however controversial his films may be, Wiseman’s commitment to documenting mistreatment and injustice is timeless and essential.

Author Bio: Joe Horsey is a writer and film student from Sheffield, England. Kubrick is his motivation, Kiarostami is his voice of reason, and documentary is his favourite form of fiction. Joe hopes to find a career in documentary filmmaking and film journalism.