15 Riveting Documentaries That Unfold Like Dramatic Narratives

riveting documentaries

Documentary films have been around since the earliest days of cinema. In a sense, they are the opposite of narrative films: fictional stories created in the mind of the writer, brought to life by the director, and starring a bunch of actors who are pretending to be someone else.

Documentaries by definition are nonfiction, true-life stories presented to the audience as a cinematic document of the world we all inhabit. Recently, there has been a shift in the form and many current documentary filmmakers have been blurring the line between factual documentaries and narrative fiction.

They present a story that actually happened but may alter the sequence of events or hold back certain details in order to construct a more dramatic film full of unforeseen twists and ultimate climaxes.

Based on the success and influence of these films, as well as narrative films that include aspects of documentary-like reality such as Boyhood (2014) and Under the Skin (2013), it is safe to assume that the boundary between narrative films and documentaries will continue to diminish, and future films may not permit classification between the two forms of filmmaking.

In the end, no matter the form or genre, every film has the same goal: to captivate an audience and produce an emotional reaction through cinematic storytelling.

The following films use this modern technique of documentary storytelling to demonstrate how the nonfiction stories can be just as thought provoking and emotionally powerful as the tales constructed by human imagination.


15. My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

My Kid Could Paint That (2007)

At four years old, Marla Olmstead became a celebrity within the art world when her abstract paintings drew allusions to Jackson Pollock and collectively sold for over $300,000. Director Amir-Bar Lev originally intended to make a documentary about our society’s obsession with child prodigies, but when suspicions arouse about whether or not Marla was the real artist of her paintings, the film’s narrative turned and went in an entirely new direction.

During a “60 Minutes” episode about Marla’s success, the show brought in a child psychologist to watch footage of the girl working. The psychologist concludes that although the end result paintings are quite magnificent, she has serious doubts about the authenticity of the work.

After the airing of this episode, the child prodigy story was thrown into limbo, especially since Marla’s father Mark is an amateur artist and many people now believed that he helps her with her paintings, if not does the majority of the work.

In the end, the filmmaker leaves it up to the audience to decide whether believe little Marla painted those works or was her father the real artist behind the finished products. In the long run, that answer may not be as impactful as the other questions raised in the film concerning the value of sole authorship, the exploitation of child celebrities, and the overall outlook of the abstract art community.


14. The Woman Who Wasn’t There (2012)

The Woman Who Wasn’t There (2012)

Everyone deals with tragedy differently. Some people bury it and try not to think about it; some cannot help remembering and look to the support of others to help them get by.

Director Angelo Guglielmo’s documentary focuses on the latter form of grief, specifically a woman named Tania Head, who became President of The World Trade Center Survivors’ Network after she shared her harrowing account of her escaping from the towers after the 9/11 attacks, which cost her to lose her husband Dave and emotionally scar her for life.

The only problem with Tania’s survival story is that she was never in the Towers when the attacks occurred and her “husband Dave” never existed. Her whole story was a lie.

It is eventually discovered that her real name is Alicia Esteve Head and she is a native Spaniard who moved to the United States for the first time in 2003, two years after that tragic day. Her story was so vivid, so detailed, there was no reason to question her and doing so would have seemed disgraceful and inappropriate. She even had burn scars on her arm and mentioned being rescued by Welles Crowther, a real hero who rescued numerous people from the burning flames in the building.

It is unthinkable to a normal person how someone could make up such a devastating story, let alone share it repeatedly with the world, adding dramatic details along the way as the media ate it up. Although the main storyline follows the disgusting actions of this psychologically disturbed woman, this documentary also comments on the continuous emotional trauma survivors feel everyday and the need for communal support after such a tragedy.


13. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

The King of Kong A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Who knew a movie about middle-aged men playing video games could turn out to be such a stimulating study of human nature? The film’s premise revolves around two men and their quest to break the world record score in the “Donkey Kong” arcade game.

Steve Wiebe is a new on the scene middle school teacher, who started playing for fun in his garage. His nemesis Billy Mitchell is a video game legend; an archetypal villain who holds the record that Wiebe is trying to beat. Director Seth Gordon follows both men and the colorful characters that surround the ridiculously competitive and political society of hardcore gamers.

The Biblical story of David and Goliath works for a reason: people love an underdog story. King of Kong works for the same reason: Wiebe persistently fights back against the implausible odds and unfair obstacles that Mitchell and his followers throw in his way of achieving the high score.

A ludicrous concept on the surface, the film is actually an intriguing portrait of an underground world that not many people are aware of and has the classical structure of a fictional story.

Since the film’s release, the world record changed hands between Wiebe and Mitchell before another gamer outperformed both of them. World records and video games aside, this documentary is a compelling battle between rivals and provides fascinating look into the gaming community.


12. Queen of Versailles (2012)

Jackie and her children, Orlando, Florida ©Lauren Greenfield 2011/INSTITUTE

Another documentary that starts off as a character-driven portrait then transitions to tense narrative due to unforeseen life circumstances, Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 film is about the trials and tribulations of the Siegel family, as millionaire businessman David and trophy wife Jackie attempt to build the most expensive home in America. They are forced to put their construction plans on hold after the 2008 financial crisis causes trouble for David’s timeshare company and puts Jackie’s dream home in jeopardy of ever being finished.

Although there are not necessarily any characters to root for, except maybe the Siegel’s maids and housekeepers, the absurdity of this family’s behavior and spending habits is fun to watch and at times it plays like a flat-out parody of the American Dream.

Jackie is the main source of entertainment, a ditzy former Miss Florida contestant who utters some of the most ignorant and outlandish statements imaginable, yet she remains oblivious about how she is coming off and will be perceived by the general public. She genuinely sees herself as a good person who deserves everything she gets.

After the film’s release, the Siegel’s sued the filmmaker for the way in which they were portrayed in the film. The judge dismissed the lawsuit and forced David Siegel to pay the filmmakers’ legal fees.

Not quite a “riches-to-rags” story, even at their lowest points the Siegel family has more money than most people will make in their whole lifetimes, watching this wealthy family struggle with the idea that they cannot built their $65 million home is a must-watch for the 99% of Americans who have to work hard every day just to pay the bills.


11. An Honest Liar (2014)

An Honest Liar (2014)

Co-directed by Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom, this documentary follows the mysterious and theatrical life of magician-turned-skeptic investigator James Randi. Although the film centers on just one man, the dramatic nature of his life allows for multiple story lines to develop. From Randi’s rise as a popular stage magician and escape artist, to his personal mission of defrauding those who claim to have telekinetic powers, and finally the secretive and controversial relationship with his boyfriend Jose Alvarez.

The “Amazing Randi” grew up idolizing the great Houdini and developed his own craft to the point where he could master some of the same tricks performed by his hero.

Instead of using his skills as a magician to make millions of dollars, Randi decided to use his insider knowledge to defraud other charlatans, those he felt were conning people out of their hard earned money and making empty promises of spiritual healing to people inflicted with serious health problems.

He even wrote a book about a popular self-proclaimed psychic named Uri Geller, exposing all of the trickery behind Geller’s so called mystical powers. Geller and the other characters Randi came across during his career appear in the film and all give engrossing interviews about Randi’s controversial tactics of exposing deceptive frauds.

The biggest twist in the film comes towards the end when we learn a shocking secret involving Randi’s partner Jose Alvarez that puts the future of their relationship in doubt. Throughout it all, the documentary presents an honest, unfiltered look at the magical life of James Randi, who dedicated his life revealing the tricks behind the cons, all the while keeping secrets of his own hidden from the public.


10. Man on Wire (2008)

Man on Wire (2008)

Released in 2008, this documentary relives the story of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s dangerous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Rather than simply presenting a reflective account of that day and a standard character portrayal of Petit, director James Marsh mixes rare footage and grainy re-enactments with with present day interviews of those involved in executing the performance.

The documentary is crafted like a high-tension “heist film” that never takes its foot off the gas pedal. Petit is so engaging as a narrator that it brings the excitement and craziness of that day back to life, even though it took place 24 years earlier.

Although the audiences knows Petit survives from the present-day interviews, it is hard not to get caught up in the “will he make it or not” anxiety that comes with watching someone perform an act with such high consequences.

The documentary ends on an uplifting note that encourages courageous risk-taking for the sake of art, but had Petit not made it across that tightrope the resulting story would have had a much more depressing tone.


9. Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Searching for Sugar Man

Early in his career, musician Sixto Rodriguez drew comparisons to the legendary Bob Dylan with his soulful guitar playing and philosophical lyrics. Rodriguez released two albums in the early seventies to little mainstream American success then he seemed to disappear completely from the music industry.

However, decades later his music garnered a cult following in South Africa and inspired his biggest fans to investigate what happened to their musical hero, who was rumored to have died. By tracing location names in his song lyrics, they were able to discover not only who this mythical singer really was and where he came from, but also that the man was still alive and well.

The talented artist who never really made it trope rings true, as it transitions from solving the mystery of what happened to Rodriguez to a portrait of a gifted musician who quit making music and took a blue collar job in his hometown of Detroit. The production for the film was so low-budget that director Malik Bendjelloul had to shoot some scenes on his iPhone after funding ran out.

The documentary went on to win the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and the 2013 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Sugar Man is a touching reflection on artistic success and celebrity myth, and concludes with an uplifting performance by Rodriguez in front of a sold-out crowd of South Africans who love his music.