15 Riveting Documentaries That Unfold Like Dramatic Narratives

8. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)

Resurrect Dead The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)

You may have seen a “Toynbee Tile” and not even realized it. These licensed plate size linoleum tiles embedded in the asphalt have been found in over 20 major US cities and have even been spotted as far as South America.

The craziest part of the whole ordeal is that nobody knew where the tiles came from, how they got there, or what they even mean. This documentary is about a group of Philadelphia residents, including first time filmmakers Jon Foy and Colin Smith, who became obsessed with solving the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.

The message on the tiles is just as puzzling as their unknown origin, each displays something similar to: “TOYNBEE IDEA, IN Kubrick’s 2001, RESURRECT DEAD, ON PLANET JUPITER.” People began to wonder, is it just an elaborate hoax? Maybe an alien message? The anonymity and obscurity of the tiles plagued those who care about such things for years, but as shown in this documentary, the mystery may now be over.

As the crew in the film slowly dissects the Toynbee mystery, the evidence points to one man being responsible for all the tiles: a death obsessed, recluse from Philadelphia named Severino Verna, who believed he was spreading the message that would eventually save the human race. Conspiracy theorists and detective story lovers will enjoy the ride this film embarks on as they attempt to decipher the meaning and unearth the origin of the elusive Toynbee Tiles.


7. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Capturing the Friedmans

What started as a short film about clowns who perform children’s birthday parties, turned into an extremely personal, in-depth account of a family torn apart by pedophilia and a broken justice system.

Director Andrew Jarecki was researching a birthday clown named David Friedman when he came across the story of Friedman’s older brother and father, both of whom pled guilty to child sex abuse in the late 80’s. Jarecki abandoned his clown film, and began conducting interviews and compiling home-video footage to tell the story of the Friedman family and what happened that led to the admissions of guilt by these two men.

Jarecki lets both sides tell their stories and never blatantly chooses one side over the other, which makes the film all the more intriguing. This is one of those films that two people can watch together, and then have a heated debated after the viewing about which side they agree with.

The film makes it clear that Arnold Friedman, the father, has an attraction to young children, which he does not deny. Whether or not Arnold and his son Jesse committed the crimes to which they pled guilty, however, is questionable and most of the evidence points to them being wrongfully accused and unfairly punished due to the child sex abuse hysteria of the time.

Throughout it all we see how these accusations torn apart David Friedman and his upper class Jewish family. Arnold eventually committed suicide in prison while Jesse continues to fight for his freedom behind bars. Jarecki recently released his HBO mini-series about accused killer Robert Durst, while David Friedman continues to work as a children’s birthday clown.


6. The Cove (2009)

The Cove (2009)

This Academy Award Winner is controversial, thrilling, disturbing, and really unlike any other film of its kind. The story line follows former dolphin trainer turned activist Ric O’Barry and National Geographic photographer turned director Louie Psihoyos as they fight to expose the questionable techniques used for dolphin hunting in Taiji, Japan. Unlike other documentaries that choose to create dramatic effect through neutrality, this film takes a strong stance and fights for the cause it believes in.

Some may disagree with the film’s message and talk about the necessity of killing animals for the human economy, but it is hard to deny the thrilling nature of the film due to the daring, proactive decisions made by the filmmaker and his crew. Using night-vision technology and hidden cameras, the crew goes on a secret mission that seems like it was lifted straight out of a Bond movie; only in this case it is real life.

The climax of the film comes when we are shown what the hidden cameras captured and the footage is truly horrific, so viewers be aware. There have been other documentaries that examine the ethics of animal cruelty but none go to the extent The Cove does to expose the brutality that goes on behind-the-scenes.


5. Stories We Tell (2012)

Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley is a respected Canadian actress who has starred in critically acclaimed films such as The Sweet Hereafter and Go. She has also written and directed the films Away From Her (nominated for Screenwriting Oscar) and Take This Waltz. Yet, her most powerful film to date may be this documentary, where she turns the camera on her own life and the shocking secrets buried within her immediate family.

Through her cinema verite approach of making the film, using casual interviews of family members and realistic home-video style reenactments; Polley puts the audience in the confused mind state she felt as she uncovered the hidden truth about her own identity and her deceased mother.

The film is as personal as it can get and evolves into a form of cinematic therapy for Polley, but also touches on the universal themes of subjectivity in story telling and the fact that we can never really know another person as well as we think do.


4. Hoop Dreams (1994)

Hoop Dreams

The director Steve James had originally planned to make a half-hour short film about high school basketball in Chicago. Instead, he and his crew ended up following two black teenagers for over four years and captured over 250 hours of footage. They cut that footage down to just under three hours and released one of the most insightful documentaries ever made.

The two boys followed throughout are Arthur Agee and William Gates, both promising hoop prospects from inner city Chicago, who are recruited to play at the prestigious suburban private school. Both of the boys’ lives have drastic ups and downs, their stories expose the shady nature of high school athletics and the tough obstacles one must overcome to achieve success as a poor minority.

The film was a landmark in documentary filmmaking and in his review of the film Roger Ebert said it was “one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen”.

Although the ending to both of these young men’s stories are not what they had envisioned when filming began, neither became big time college hoops stars or made it to the NBA, this film held a mirror to society and the reflection that appeared on screen is more gripping and truthful than any fictional account of growing up poor and black in urban American.


3. Paradise Lost Trilogy (1996, 2001, 2011)

Paradise Lost The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills

This documentary trilogy spans almost 20 years as it follows the trial, conviction, incarceration, and eventual release of the “West Memphis Three”. Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley were all teenagers when they were arrested for the murder of three young boys in 1993 Arkansas.

The community was shaken and the cops were determined to find the monsters that committed this heinous crime. Due to erroneous evidence and overzealous authorities, three innocent teenagers were forced to spend 18 years of their lives in prison.

Before the development of DNA evidence and other forensic procedures, murder cases that resulted ended unjustly were not that uncommon. The police are pressured to find killers and this stress can lead to a search for convictions rather than truth.

This documentary hits home with anyone was seen as an outcast during their adolescent years, it is an extreme example of how the way you dress and the music you listen to will affect the way strangers prematurely judge and come to conclusions about who you are as a person.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky got more personal footage of a murder trial than any other crime documentaries. The tone of their three films shift accordingly: the first stays neutral and shows both sides of the case, but as the story unfolds and it becomes clear that the accused were treated with severe injustice, the latter two films expose the flaws in the justice system and how easy it is for innocent people to be convicted of crimes they did not commit.

To sum up the importance of the Paradise Lost Trilogy, upon his release from prison Damien Echols commented, “if not for the Paradise Lost documentaries… these people would have murdered me, swept this under the rug, and I wouldn’t be anything but a memory right now.”


2. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

Dear Zachary A Letter to a Son about His Father

As emotionally exhausting a film that you may ever come across, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne originally made this documentary for his best friend’s son Zachary, who was born after his father Andrew Bagby was murdered. He traveled all over North America and England with his camera and interviewed those who knew Andrew best, they all share memories of a wonderful man that was taken away too soon.

As Zachary’s mother and Andrew’s accused killer Shirley Turner awaits trial, the flawed justice system allows for a startling twist that will rip your heart and illustrate just how evil this world can be.

The low-budget style of the film adds to the personal nature of the story: Kuenne did not plan to show to his film to the public at first, he was only making it for Andrew’s friends and family. The rapid-cutting, unfiltered narration, and touching interviews give the audience a glimpse into the life of Andrew Bagby, who in less than 30 years on earth impacted more lives than most people could in two lifetimes.

The most powerful moments come from interviews with Andrew’s parents David and Kathleen, whose strength and resiliency may help restore your faith in humanity after witnessing the hell they are put through. It is best to watch without researching any background to the story, but have tissues close by and be prepared for the emotional gut punch of Dear Zachary.


1. The Imposter (2012)

the imposter

The less you know about this film going in the better, and either way it will absolutely blow your mind. Too bizarre to be fiction, this documentary tells the story of an adult Frenchman named Frederic Bourdin, was able to steal the identity of Nicholas Barclay, a young Texas boy who went missing at 13 years old.

With more plot turns than a Hitchcock thriller, director Bart Layton shows the influence editing can have on a story and how the structure of a story, even in documentaries, is essential for manipulating the audience’s expectations and building dramatic tension.

He also makes the simple yet vital decision to film Bourdin’s interviews in close-up, with his eyes looking directly into the camera; he literally wants the viewer to experience what it is like to be in the presence of this deceptive conman. Although the audience knows he is the villain, it is near impossible to not fall under his spell; critics have compared his psychopathic charm to Hannibal Lecter, one of the greatest villains in the history of cinema.

The riddle to what really happened to young Nicholas Barclay has never been solved and probably never will be. The mystery of how Bourdin became the blonde teenager is just as baffling and this documentary shows the unbelievable story of how he earned the nickname “The Imposter”.

Author Bio: Joshua is an aspiring professional screenwriter and film director with an admiration for filmmakers who use the medium of cinema as an art form rather than pure entertainment. Currently he is attending film school at Brooklyn College while working on original screenplays and short films.