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15 Disturbing Documentaries That Aren’t True Crime

True-crime documentaries have certainly become all the rage, with the genre proving to be one of the most popular on both streaming platforms and social media video sites. There is something inherently fascinating about peeking into the darkest corners of a real person’s mind and figuring out how they got to that point. However, tragedies outside the true crime genre are often overlooked by documentary viewers, despite offering equally introspective looks at the unsettling and disturbing underbelly of different cultures and events worldwide.

Here, we want to highlight notable documentaries that delve into disturbing content, focusing on ones that have redeeming qualities worth checking out. We will avoid ‘shockumentries,’ like Mondo films and ‘Faces of Death,’ but these movies still tap into dark subjects that may be too much for some to handle. So tread cautiously, and be prepared to explore some of the most disturbing documentaries ever made.

The following documentaries touch on various sensitive subjects, so be mindful of your triggers before proceeding, and if there is any hesitancy, consider checking out another article.

15 Titicut Folies (1966)

Grove Press

The jarring Titicut Folies by documentarian Frederick Wiseman portrays the conditions at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The stark suffering of the inmate’s daily lives is captured here, paired with shameful neglect, including barren cells, infrequent and harsh bathing, public nudity, and force-feeding.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Seeing the abuse, and — sometimes more jarring — the utter indifference to the suffering of others within an institution is highly uncomfortable to view. Wiseman approaches his subjects with as little interference as possible, other than a few segments where inmates speak to the camera about their situation, permeating the documentary with perverse voyeurism into the lives of broken and lost men deemed ‘criminally insane.’ The movie was banned shortly after its release and not allowed to be shown until 1991, 25 years later.

Related: The Best Movies and TV Shows That Put a Spotlight on Mental Health

The movie is considered a cornerstone in exploring the faults of the mental health institutions of the time, and it carries a heavy cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. Despite being banned, it did get showings for educational purposes, which led to its infamy leading up to a proper release. Ultimately, the film has important cultural value, and is a fascinating look into a time and place we are, thankfully, far removed from.

Stream Titicut Follies on Kanopy

14 Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate (1985)

Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate

Exploring the short-lived practice of sex surrogacy, Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate follows Maureen Sullivan and her sessions with two clients. The sessions with Kipper, a 25-year-old college student overcoming shyness, and John, a 45-year-old divorcee, who believes his hang-ups keep him from finding a new partner.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

The degree to which the doc is disturbing depends on your comfort with watching other people have sex. Still, there is an odd voyeurism involved in watching people go through sessions and discuss their vulnerabilities. That said, anyone who has an interest in fringe psychology, from primal scream to rebirthing therapy, will find the sessions of Maureen Sullivan and her clients equal parts uncomfortable and fascinating. Moreover, sex surrogacy therapy still exists, and while it has evolved, it is a unique look into a form of treatment still championed to this day by a select few.

Stream Private Practices: The Story of a Sex Surrogate on Kanopy

13 Children Underground (2001)

Children Underground
Childhope International

Children Underground explores the lives of five abandoned children in Bucharest, Romania, hiding away in subway stations. Filmmaker Edet Belzberg captures the children fighting, abusing themselves, and struggling with addiction to a silver paint known as Aurolac. In addition, the documentary includes interviews and follow-ups with some of the children who finally decide to seek shelter and adoption. The filmmakers don’t interfere or push a narrative, allowing the kids to tell their own stories.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Witnessing children messed up out of their minds on drugs and wandering the streets begging will be more than enough to disturb most viewers to the core. In addition, exploring how the kids are exploited, pushed into drug addiction, and made to distrust the surrounding society is heartbreaking. The value of the film, besides facing the harsh realities of an issue still relevant in many countries, is that it gives a distinct portrait of the particular failings of a time in place. Notably, the collapse of communism in Romania left behind a legacy of unwanted children due to its reckless population growth policies, including the ban on birth control.

Rent Children Underground on Apple TV

12 Orozco The Embalmer (2001)

Orozco The Embalmer
Orozco Productions/V&R Planning

Orozco The Embalmer follows the daily routines of Froilan Orozco Duarte, an embalmer living in the impoverished and crime-ridden area of El Cartucho in Bogotá, Colombia.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

This one is tough… the movie is partly presented as a shockumentary and is the only extreme entry on this list. This one shows everything in graphic detail. Orozco handles all types of clients, including infants, and seeing such imagery is enough to decimate most. It will prove difficult for the majority to find value here.

Yet, the movie is unapologetic in capturing the brutality and corruption in Bogotá, and how people like Orozco have a role to fill in that society. Ultimately, it is an unflinching portrayal of a poverty-stricken culture that has accepted death as an everyday occurrence which will have value for those who can stomach it.

Rent Orozco The Embalmer on YouTube

11 Grizzly Man (2005)

Grizzly Man

Grizzly Man

Release Date
August 12, 2005

Werner Herzog , Carol Dexter , Val Dexter , Sam Egli , Franc G. Fallico , Willy Fulton

From director Werner Herzog, Grizzly Man chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who lived among grizzly bears in Alaska and was killed, along with his girlfriend, by a bear in 2003. The documentary was spliced together from snippets of the more than 100 hours of video shot by Treadwell throughout several summers as a conservationist.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Exploring the relationship between man and nature and the challenges of conservation, there is a lot of insight to be drawn from the intimate documentary following Timothy Treadwell. However, his death indeed hangs over the entire production, as well as knowing that his casual approach toward interacting with wild animals puts him on his inevitable path. The movie does not show the bear attack as the footage was not recorded, but audio of the attack exists and is included.

Stream Grizzly Man on Prime Video

10 Workingman’s Death (2005)

Workingman's Death
Paul Thiltges Distribution

The lives of laborers worldwide are explored in Michael Glawogger’s visually stunning documentary Workingman’s Death. The doc is split into chapters that show a variety of places and laborers: illegal miners of Donets Basin, Ukraine, sulfur carriers in Ijen, Indonesia, butchers in an open-air market in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, welders in the Gadani ship-breaking yard in Pakistan, and steelworkers in Liaoning, China.

Related: Best Documentaries About the Vietnam War, Ranked

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Each chapter of Workingman’s Death offers a unique look into laborers who work dangerous jobs for very little money, showing both local and global exploitation of the impoverished. A few of the chapters stick out because of their harrowing narratives. The sulfur carriers of Indonesia shorten their life by performing the dangerous mining of sulfur, and the film follows one worker who relays stories of his friend dying while on the job — slipping into a deadly sulfur pool is not uncommon.

Comparatively, the illegal miners in Ukraine have become so desperate for money that they break the law and slip into little abandoned crevices to spend all day hammering away, knowing that the surrounding walls could collapse. This movie puts many things into perspective when looking at the luxuries many of us are given about where and when we are born. In addition, the film truly is stunning in its visual execution, and the troubling content and words of those involved also act to celebrate said individuals and their spirit to survive at any cost.

Rent Workingman’s Death on Apple TV

9 The Bridge (2006)

The Bride (2006)
IFC Films

Filmmaker Eric Steele takes a look at lives lost at the Golden Gate Bridge through footage of those who jumped, as well as interviews with those who survived, witnesses, and family members left behind. The controversial documentary caught 23 of the 24 known suicides off the bridge in 2004.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Oddly enough, the footage of people jumping, seen on a camera placed far away from the instances and only showing a small figure falling from the bridge, is not as disturbing as the interviews. This is particularly true of the few survivors who relate what led them up to that moment and the families who lost people.

For a long time, the Golden Gate Bridge was one of the most popular locations for jumpers, and while the film sheds light on this by calling for empathy, better safeguards, and focus on mental health, whether it had a positive impact or not is contested. Given the subject, The Bridge should be approached cautiously, but for those interested in stories around the famous spot and learning more about the tragedies there, Steele’s approach has value.

Stream The Bridge on AMC+

8 Knuckle (2011)

Knuckle (2011)
Rise Films

Shot over a 12-year period, Knuckle chronicles two Irish traveling families harboring a decades-long grudge against one another. The families record ‘diss videos’ and send them to the other family to help orchestrate and set up bare-knuckle boxing matches.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Online fight videos, professional boxing and MMA have certainly dulled most viewers’ shock at watching people brawl, regardless of how bloody it gets. Still, for some, the graphic fights alone will turn your stomach. Besides the fights, getting a front-row seat to this decades-long beef has an element of peculiarity that is often more unsettling than the bloody fights.

Any documentary shot over such a long period is bound to be somewhat intriguing, and it is hard to draw oneself away from the drama of the two feuding families. Moreover, Knuckle gives a rare insight into a very secluded community and culture seldom seen in film and TV.

Rent Knuckle on YouTube

7 The Act of Killing (2012)

The Act of Killing

The Act of Killing

Release Date
August 31, 2012

Anwar Congo , Herman Koto , Syamsul Arifin , Ibrahim Sinik , Yapto Soerjosoemarno , Safit Pardede

Following self-proclaimed paramilitary “gangsters” who were responsible for the mass killings in Indonesia in 1965, The Act of Killing is part drama and part documentary. The drama elements come from the filmmakers getting their subjects to act out their atrocities in various ways, employing locals to help them re-enact, and even using musical numbers to recapture the ‘glory days’ of their dominance over the populace.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

The Act of Killing offers a peculiar mix of disturbing elements. The horrific acts being discussed and played out in a way that makes light of the matter is one thing. But the revisionist history under the killers’ guidance adds a sinister edge to the documentary. This is also where the strength of the production lies, as the viewers get to see how people can rewrite the past and change the narrative, regardless of the extent of their crimes.

The film also struck a chord with many, and was met with critical acclaim, winning numerous awards and landing in the top ten movies of the year lists by outlets like The Guardian, People Magazine, and Time. Out of all the documentaries included in the list, this is undoubtedly the most well-received and closest to being ‘essential’ viewing.

Stream The Act of Killing on Peacock

6 The Nightmare (2015)

The Nightmare

The Nightmare

Release Date
June 5, 2015

Rodney Ascher

Yatoya Toy , Siegfried Peters , Steven Yvette , Age Wilson

Focusing on the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis, The Nightmare combines interviews with sufferers and re-enactments of the ‘shadow people’ that visit them. The movie also delves into the potential theory behind sleep paralysis, looking at how it has been interpreted globally and throughout time.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

If you have ever suffered from sleep paralysis or know someone who has, the amount of overwhelming fear it can instill and how it can change your perception of the world is disturbing. That said, those who have never even heard of the phenomenon won’t find this one as disturbing as it is fascinating. This one will also appeal to horror fans, as the genre heavily influences Rodney Ascher’s documentaries. This is best highlighted in his documentary Room 237, which explores the various themes and theories of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining with a unique visual flair.

Stream The Nightmare on Tubi

5 Caniba (2017)

Caniba Documentry
The Criterion Channel

A reflection on the uncomfortable existence of cannibalistic desires, Caniba follows the bizarre story of Issei Sagawa who, while living in France in the ’80s, killed and cannibalized Renée Hartevelt, only to be extradited to Japan where — due to a loophole — he was released without conviction. The movie discusses his peculiar celebrity status, and his relationship with his brother Jun, who helps care for him.

Related: 13 Best Movies About Cannibals, Ranked

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

The story of Sagawa is one of the most fascinating and infuriating cases of a man given release for a horrible crime. This is made all the more baffling when considering his minor celebrity upon return, which included him selling a tell-all book, making manga showcasing his crimes, and writing a cookbook. Sagawa’s mere existence and freedom are disturbing unto itself.

While this is the one entry on our list that could fall under true crime, the focus here is more on the person after the fact, and the time spent with Sagawa is a portrait of a free man who will never face repercussions in his native Japan. The result is a fascinating and one-of-a-kind window into a controversial figure that dives deep into how he came to be.

Stream Caniba on Mubi

4 Death Zone: Cleaning Mount Everest (2018)

Death Zone: Cleaning Mount Everest
Signature Entertainment

Death Zone: Cleaning Mount Everest follows the journey of 20 elite Nepali climbers as they venture into the “Death Zone” of Mount Everest to clean up the waste left by tourists on the mountain they hold sacred. Everest, as a water source for locals, must be cleaned to avoid contamination. During their cleaning, they are also contracted to bring back the bodies of two different individuals who died on the mountain.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

The many bodies of climbers lost in the mountains of Everest and other peaks always make for a haunting image. In addition, the amount of pollution on Everest is staggering when considering how ‘remote’ it is usually portrayed. However, the documentary is mainly a positive exploration and celebration of the works of the Nepali people in keeping the mountain clean. This is a good choice if you want to start with the least ‘disturbing’ documentary on this list.

Stream Death Zone: Cleaning Mount Everest on Tubi

3 Wet House (2021)

Wet House Documentary poster

Showing the radical care model of the ‘wet house,’ a place for treatment of alcoholism that allows its patrons to drink, documentarian Benjamin May spends a year at one of the locations observing and talking with its residents who are given refuge and an alternative way to deal with severe alcohol use disorder. Instead of using abstinence, the wet houses’ goal is to lessen the impact of alcohol while providing a safe area for the unhoused.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

Wet House offers an uncomfortable front-row seat to the struggles of unhomed individuals, which includes a wide array of people dealing with their own struggles. This includes residents dealing with PTSD and other mental health issues that marks an underlying reason for their addictive personalities. It is sad and tragic, and while the wet house model is somewhat contentious, it shows how complex the reform attempts can be under any given circumstances.

The content may be uncomfortable, and viewing humanity at its lowest is always challenging. However, facing these issues and trying to understand better where people come from will evoke empathy and give a deeper understanding of how so many fall through the cracks and end up in dire situations.

Rent Wet House on Apple TV

2 Mister Organ (2022)

Mister Organ
Drafthouse Films

David Farrier decides to look into the life of Michael Organ, an enigmatic figure associated with a local antique store and a car clamping business in Ponsonby, Auckland. As David learns of Michael’s questionable past, the two begin to butt heads, and threats of lawsuits and harassment start to push David into a depression.

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

The ability of someone else to completely mess up your life is more relevant than ever, thanks to how much of society and culture is tied to perceptions of your character that can be easily manipulated by online harassment. Still, Michael’s approach is more hands-on, and as his persona unravels, it seems possible that David may have put himself at odds with a sociopath who is more than happy to provoke him. This closeness to Micheal’s overwhelming persona makes Mister Organ a disturbing film.

That said, there is still some entertainment value in the documentary. David Ferrier understands how to frame these odd situations, much like iconic documentarian Louis Theroux, having worked on the Netflix limited series Dark Tourist and making the peculiar Tickled, which chronicled the crimes of a tickle enthusiast who would trick young men into making fetish videos. Mister Organ is as hypnotically bizarre as it is disturbing, and worth checking out.

Rent Mister Organ on Apple TV

1 The Contestant (2023)

The Contestant
MRC/Misfits Entertainment

The Contestant revisits the controversial 1998 game show ‘Denpa Shōnen,’ which saw a young aspiring comedian, Nasubi, tasked with remaining alone and naked in a room until he won his way to freedom through mail-in contest winnings. Having to earn $1 million Yen (about $10,000 at the time), Nasubi also had to survive on his winnings, including food and clothes — and sometimes, only things like dog food were won.

Related: 16 Best Documentaries on Prime Video to Watch Right Now

Why It Is Disturbing, and Why You Should Still Watch It

One of the most extreme cases of exploitative entertainment that put a man through inhuman and torturous events, the story of Nasubi has been explored in depth many times over, including being written about here on MovieWeb. It is an utterly fascinating story made all the more compelling by Nasubi’s charismatic personality and the hours and hours of footage collected of the man for a fascinating TV audience.

It is also one of the first shows ever to be cast via live stream, similar to the film The Truman Show — which came out the same year. After the contest was finished, Nasubi went and saw the film in theaters, and had trouble convincing himself that he wasn’t still being recorded. The documentary by Clair Titley debuted at TIFF and is set to be released on Hulu on a yet-to-be-confirmed date.

The Contestant is currently not available for rent or stream


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