200 Free Documentaries: A Super Rich List of Finely-Crafted Documentaries on the Web

I’ve often called doc­u­men­tary my favorite kind of film, know­ing full well that the label des­ig­nates less a defined genre than a use­ful­ly mal­leable descrip­tion. What does a doc­u­men­tary have? An unscript­ed, non­fic­tion­al sto­ry; inter­views; footage can­did­ly shot — maybe. It may also include script­ed, staged, fic­tion­al mate­r­i­al, and may treat real events in a fic­tion­al­ized man­ner or search for the real­i­ty in events cloud­ed by fic­tion. For fine exam­ples of the last, see the works of Errol Mor­ris, four of which — A Brief His­to­ry of Time on Stephen Hawk­ing (above), Novem­ber 22, 1963 on JFK, They Were There on IBM, and Wern­er Her­zog Eats His Shoe on, well, sub­ject obvi­ous – you can see right here in our col­lec­tion of 200 free doc­u­men­taries online. And speak­ing of Her­zog, the oth­er liv­ing film­mak­er doing the most to push out­ward the bound­aries of doc­u­men­tary, we have From One Sec­ond to the Next, on the dan­gers of tex­ting while dri­ving, and Por­trait Wern­er Her­zog, on his own life and work.

But cin­e­ma had the doc­u­men­tary long before it had the likes of Mor­ris and Her­zog, and our col­lec­tion includes a diver­si­ty of such pic­tures from all over the past cen­tu­ry. 1958’s Ansel Adams: Pho­tog­ra­ph­er, for instance, pro­files in motion the prac­tice of the man whose work in still imagery antic­i­pat­ed, in many ways, the mod­ern nature doc­u­men­tary. Doc­u­men­tary films have arguably pro­vid­ed the rich­est means of view­ing every kind of cre­ative mind at work, from Alfred Hitch­cock (The Men Who Made the Movies: Hitch­cock, Dial H for Hitch­cock) to James Joyce (The Tri­als of Ulysses) to Joni Mitchell (Woman of Heart and Mind) to Charles Bukows­ki (Born Into This). Some of them even came as ear­ly entries from not-yet famous direc­tors, includ­ing Stan­ley Kubrick (Day of the FlightFly­ing Padre, The Sea­far­ers), Jean-Luc Godard (Oper­a­tion Con­crete), and Kevin Smith (Mae Day: The Crum­bling of a Doc­u­men­tary). Nobody can ever say where the doc­u­men­tary form will go next, but watch these 200 and you’ll have a pret­ty fair idea of all the excit­ing places — geo­graph­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, per­son­al, and artis­tic — it’s gone already.

See our col­lec­tion of 200 free doc­u­men­taries online, part of our larg­er col­lec­tion of 635 Free Movies Online.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • John says:

    For the record, Wern­er Her­zog Eats His Shoe was direct­ed by the late, great doc­u­men­tar­i­an Les Blank. Mor­ris won the bet with Her­zog that led to the feast and, con­se­quent­ly, the film by Blank.

  • aram says:

    if we have this list cat­e­go­rized it would be won­der­ful !!!
    great job by the way
    thanks you very much <3

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