Mar 30

Not that we need any more negativity right now but we can learn a great deal from our mistakes and these films investigate some of the biggest blunders of our day. Here’s a must-see list of fifteen documentaries. Warning: these are not happy movies- they’re downright disturbing and infuriating. Whatever your political bent you should watch these and discuss them critically. But just a headsup: you will probably want to bolt down any objects that could be thrown at your TV set before watching. In no particular order, here are the documentaries complete with blood-boiling temperature ratings:

Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism

“Fair and Balanced” ummm… no. This movie shows just how out of touch with reality the viewers of Fox News are. The film surveys viewers of various news networks and compares results to see if there’s a bias. The responses from Fox News viewers were incredibly warped. Interviews with ex-Fox journalists reveal the morning memos of how public opinion was to be perverted that day. Bill O’Reilly earns my nomination for most annoying human.
Free on Google video. Temp – 110


Enron: Smartest guys in the room

This is a safari into the corruption around the Enron scandal. What’s most troubling and surprising about this one is how distributed the participation was. This wasn’t an isolated case of Enron employees behaving badly but rather a concerted collaboration between a number of major banks, power companies and the accounting firm Arthur Anderson (who had to re-brand as Accenture because their reputation was so irreversibly trashed). It blows the mind to see how far these guys took it. And the bleed over to another documentary on this list is equally crazy: the majority of Enron’s SEC filings were opportunely destroyed when WTC7 mysteriously collapsed.
Free on Google video. Temp – 105


No end in sight: The American Occupation of Iraq

Possibly the most infuriating one of the bunch, this film interviews key insiders about the mis-management of the Iraq conflict. If you watch none of the other movies from this list, see this one. I won’t even comment on it because it merits an entire post.
. Free on Google video. Temp – 150


Hacking Democracy

This film covers the voting scandal of the 2004 presidential elections. Gaping security holes are demonstrated on the Diebold voting machines and public election officials are interviewed. How Diebold is still in business after this snowjob is pretty amazing. And the fact they never conducted a recount in Ohio after finding clear evidence of tampering is just one big WTF.
Free on Youtube. Temp = 120


A Crude Awakening

This is a sobering look at the USA’s dependence on foreign oil. The key takeaway on this one is that the graphs are divergent – not only is our consumption going up but we’ve crested the hill of how much we can extract and we’re now coasting down the other side with increasingly-dwindling reserves.
Free on Google video. Temp = 105


FLOW: For Love of Water

This film deals with the commercialization and privatization of the delivery of the most fundamental natural resource for humans: water. It also examines the legality of companies like Coca Cola and Nestle bottling a resource they don’t own and turning around and selling it to people. On a positive note affordable UV-based water purification technology and Dean Kamen’s Slingshot project offer promise. Disturbing is the fact we spend 3x the cost of what it would take to deliver potable water to the world’s population on bottled water in the US each year.
Free on Youtube. Temp – 125


The World According to Monsanto

Get to know this company because they’re going to own everything you eat ten years from now. This film explores the multi-national behemoth that’s trying patent the genomes of living organisms. “Frankenfoods,” falsified studies, Bovine Growth Hormone, genetically-modified foods, carcinogenic herbicides, “Round Up-ready soybeans,” intentional transgenic contamination, agent orange, monopolization of cotton trade in India- fun stuff. You gotta hand it to them for some masterful business maneuvers though – they hook farmers on a must-have competitive advantage via engineering genetically superior seeds that then require their herbicide and fertilizer to subsist. And then once in a community these genetically-modified organism (GMO) crops infect neighboring crops – a veritable Ice-nine of agriculture.
Free on Youtube. Temp – 140


Loose Change 911

This movie sorts through the inconsistencies and unexplained phenomena around 9/11. Whatever you believe about the 9/11 tragedy you should see this film. While I don’t buy that the last administration was competent enough to orchestrate something so complex, there are too many inconsistencies. The film’s creator actually started out with the intention of making a fictional movie however as he got further into the research he realized he was making a documentary.
Free on Google video. Temp – 110


Super Size me

A look at the impact of fast food on health. Martin Spurlock eats McDonald’s for a month and every time he’s asked if he’d like to supersize his meal he has to agree. Interestingly enough my roommate posed this question the other day: “Should we have a fast food tax?” If you think about it it’s no different than the idea of using a carbon tax to put a price on behavior that’s harmful to our environment. Why not do the same thing with food we know to be harmful to our bodies (and consequently our wallets in the form of health care costs)?
Free on Google video. Temp – 102



Michael Moore is annoying. No doubt. But if you can overlook his style and focus on the content of his movies he raises valid points. This film explores the brokenness that is our current health care system. HMO’s, lobbyists, insurance companies, big pharma – it’s a train wreck. And what’s worse is there’s a whole slew of passenger cars of baby boomers barreling down the rails. The system needs a “Hiroshima” – it’s beyond repair and can only be fixed by scrapping it and re-conceiving things from the ground up. We have intelligent people and advanced technology and could re-architect it to work in the interest of the patients it serves. The first thing that needs to happen though is abolish lobbyists and disarm the companies that have a financial interest in seeing it continue the way it is.
Free on Google video. Temp – 108


Who killed the electric car?

This is an expose on the silent sabotage of the EV1 and other electric vehicles. Interviews with insiders at GM discuss the schizophrenic dynamics inside an organization that launched a product it never wanted to succeed. Solar and Hydrogen Fuel cells were essentially calculated misdirection to sabotage the electric effort. Most interesting about this film is the passion of the EV1 drivers who were willing to pay absurd money to keep their vehicles only to have them repossessed by GM and scrapped.
Free on Google video. Temp – 115


The Corporation

This film explores the premise that “if corporations are entities that have rights like humans, what type of person would they be if they were alive?” They study the “personality” characteristics of corporations and compare what they find to the DSM-IV book of abnormal psych disorders. The findings: an entity that exhibits symptoms of extreme psychosis.
Free on Google video. Temp – 103


An Inconvenient Truth

This movie investigates the global warming crisis, makes you like Al Gore and subliminally compels you to buy a Mac. This film was actually the only one that did go mainstream. The most interesting fact from the movie is that no peer-reviewed journal has ever disagreed with global warming. I saw this shortly after reading Michael Crichton’s book, State of Fear, which among other things tried to debunk global warming as being a farce. This film provides fairly compelling evidence that that theory is undeniably wrong.
Free on Google video. Temp – 105


America Freedom to Fascism

A look at the constitutionality of the income tax. This was an eye-opener. The narrator conducts interviews with high up public officials and puts them on the spot to substantiate the constitutionality of the income tax. Not one of them is able to do it. At this point it’s so embedded in our psyche and essential to funding the activities of our Nation that it’s unlikely it could ever be ditched at this point. But it definitely has shady roots and was not something that was added legitimately to the Constitution.
Free on Google video. Temp – 110


Money as Debt

Another eye-opener this one looks at the operations of the Federal Reserve, fractional reserve lending and the process by which banks are able to create money out of thin air. Given the current credit crisis this one is especially relevant. Adhering to the gold standard would likely have condemned the US to an anemic growth rate relative to other countries but pick your poison. Fractional reserve lending at the 9:1 ratio is wildly irresponsible and a significant cause of the credit crisis we’re now experiencing.
Free on Google video. Temp – 115


BONUS: 30 Days

Here’s a bonus- it’s not a movie but rather a TV series by Martin Spurlock (the guy who did Supersize Me). Each episode is a different documentary of people doing something for thirty days. The one I found most interesting was 30 days living on minimum wage.
Free on Hulu. Temp – 100


And now if you’ll excuse me I need to go watch a Pixar movie and take a shower…

A consistent theme I noticed across these films is how the problems typically begin. There seem to be two recurring preconditions in every situation: the opportunity to make a boatload of money by exploiting a loophole and the absence of accountability for one’s actions. We now have the technology to at least solve the latter and make it so decisions formerly made by a few people behind closed doors are much more public and transparent and can be tied back to the individuals responsible. Whistleblower sites like WikiLeaks and the government project offer promise. One can only hope they grow to find mainstream popularity and the public begins to participate.

Btw, this is admittedly a ton of negativity for one post. I’ll assemble a similar list for the most inspiring documentaries to balance it out. Three companies I would like to see documentaries for that were not on this list: Verichip, Wal-Mart and Redflex. Were there any other good ones I missed? What have you watched recently that gave you a visceral, teeth-clenching response?

25 Responses to “15 disturbing documentaries”

  1. Lance says:

    very good list, there are a few i haven’t got to so thanks for the reminder.

    FYI: *morgan* spurlock

  2. Thank you for this post, Sean. As you perhaps know, I’ve seen most of these and I share your opinions of them. This is a super valuable post, and an important one. I want people to see these. I hope they will.

    The only one I disagree with you on is “A Crude Awakening” which I actually feel was a far-Right “we need to drill for more oil” message disguised as an environmental message. Alternative energy sources are dismissed as not practical, can’t possibly contain as much energy as glorious oil, etc. But anyway :) other than that one, I think these are great suggestions.

  3. Oh and by the way, there’s a Wal-Mart documentary, which I have not myself seen but have heard a lot about. It’s called “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price”.

  4. Geoff Bowers says:

    You should also add Spinal Tap ( and Kenny ( to your list of mockumentaries. If you are going to review distorted reality you might as well be laughing at the same time.

  5. I’ve seen ‘Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price’ and it deserves a place on this list.

  6. Brian says:

    You should add I.O.U.S.A. to your list.

  7. lee says:

    The Future of Food – not only goes into the Ice-Nineness of genetically modded foods, but also the revolving door between the FDA and lobbyists and execs from Monsanto and other agribusiness behemoths. It was truly terrifying. On the more hopeful side of these equations, look out for FUEL, a documentary coming out this year about alternative fuels.

  8. sean says:

    Thanks everyone for the suggestions.
    @Brandon – I never caught that from Crude Awakening but that’s an interesting theory.
    Here’s some more to add to the list (sent from various people via email, facebook, reddit and hacker news):

    * Fog of War
    * Why we fight
    * Power of nightmares
    * Century of the self
    * End of Suburbia
    * Taxi to the dark side
    * Standard operating procedure
    * The Argonomist
    * Yes men
    * Jonestown

    Will watch them all but probably need to go on a diet of Disney movies first… Thanks for all the recommendations.


  9. […] learning that folks love lists. I’m the same way, and, for some reason, this post on 15 Disturbing Documentaries got me thinking about another top ten […]

  10. Joshua May says:

    I think “Earthlings” is a pretty important documentary. It’s vegan/vegetarian centric, but I think people need to understand where the majority of their food is coming from. (And I definitely know what the movie shows isn’t the same *everywhere*, but we’re naive to think it doesn’t happen)

    Besides, I think it’s important to challenge ourselves like that, too. Don’t just watch documentaries that agree with your own ideals. It’s empowering when you can challenge yourself and come out on top.

  11. sean says:

    Josh, I haven’t seen that one yet- i’ll check it out. Good call on “challenge yourself and come out on top.” That’s what frustrates me when I hear close-minded folks that refuse to watch movies they disagree with. Entertaining an adverse opinion and responding to it helps you refine your own position. Failing to consider an argument and acknowledge it is ignorant and probably the primary contributor to why these problems occurred in the first place.


  12. timheuer says:

    Great list. I loved the electric car one. One that I just saw is Manufacturing Dissent. I’m a fan of Michael Moore’s movies, because I like mainstream thought to be challenged. Manufacturing Dissent turns the camera on Michael Moore and some of his tactics. I still like his films, but this gives you another perspective as well (and from a fan).

    While it isn’t a ‘documentary’ you may also like Flash of Genius which is a spin on a true story of the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper and how he fought the auto industry (and won) at the expense of his family life.

  13. jim bachalo says:

    Good start. In terms of ‘disturbing’ though one major omission is ‘Darwin’s Nightmare’.

    Also not all disturbing but check out Kevin Kelly’s ‘true films’ list

  14. Tiago Marques says:


    The Zeitgeist movies deal a lot with questions like money and religion and would be a very good reference on this list.

    Best regards

  15. Marko Ristic says:

    I think that "We feed the world" a film by Erwin Wagenhofer also deserves a place on this list.
    He recently made a new film called "Let's make money", I haven't seen it yet, but it could qualify for this list…

  16. Marko Ristic says:

    But all in all, I like your list. Been searching for something like this for some time. :)
    Good job!

  17. Peter says:

    Second the recommendation for Zeitgeist. The original is the must watch movie of our times.

  18. bengu says:

    there is a movie called : The Atomic Bomb movie – Trinity and beyond ! highly recommended and if you guys can find get the HD one because visually it’s an insane movie .. .

  19. Katharina says:

    Thanks so much for the great list! Does anyone know any documentaries focused specifically on torture and human rights? Or on women’s rights globally?

  20. Sean says:

    @katharina- “Taxi to the dark side” is about the torture at Guantanamo. I don’t know any offhand about women’s rights.


  21. Shiro says:

    Sorious Samura’s Cry Freetown
    This is probably the most disturbing and graphic documentary ever made.
    “A brutal portrayal of what happened in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone in January 1999, the film has succeeded in making the horror of this country’s civil war a matter of international outrage. Sorious Samura shot the film at great risk for his own life, keenly aware of the fact that the strong images he recorded were the only thing that could shake the world from its indifference to the plight of his countrymen, women and children. ”

  22. Shiro says:

    here’s a link to the video online:
    i strongly suggest if you watch it to pay for it and support Mr. Samura.

  23. Dissapointed says:

    This list is horrible, should have stated they all have political point so i could have avoided this. Honestly, how are some of these disturbing? Snuff was more disturbing than any of these. The last story told left you uneasy. Or even the bridge, suicide on the golden gate bridge. Yet, none of those are on here. Shame on you.

    • look, no offense but that's a complete subjective matter of opinion re: what constitutes "disturbing" and given that this is my blog and these are the most disturbing ones I've seen lately, GFY. I haven't seen Snuff but presumably it's about snuff filmmaking?? I did see The Bridge and indeed it's troubling to see the frequency with which people throw themselves off the Golden Gate but if you find that documentary on suicide more disturbing than the corruption exposed in each these films, i would argue your priorities are out of whack.

  24. Moi says:

    *Every fu*king day of my life"
    Media spin (an early one)
    Deep water

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