Sometimes, the best stories are the ones where nothing goes as planned. The classic twist-ending synonymous with Hollywood thrillers can often be even more shocking when it happens in real life, and that's precisely what happened in these documentaries that shift directions partway through.
On a quest for one thing, these curious filmmakers unwittingly stumbled into all kinds of bizarre hidden truths, from the dangers of online dating, to celebrity falls from grace, get-rich-quick schemes, and unearthing horrific crimes. Here are some of the most abrupt changes in documentaries.
Filmmaker Kurt Kuenne intended to make Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father as a gift for the titular Zachary, the son of Kuenne's best friend, Andrew Bagby. Bagby was murdered by his partner—and Zachary's mother—Shirley Jane Turner before Zachary was born.
But, as Kuenne sits down with Bagby and Turner's relatives and friends, what began as a loving tribute to his late friend morphs into something resembling a tragic true-crime documentary. As Turner makes her way through the Canadian prison and legal system, Bagby's parents fight to maintain custody of Zachary. They come up against some shocking hurdles and their battle, ultimately, is lost. In 2003, Turner jumped into the Atlantic Ocean with Zachary in her arms, killing them both.
Initial Release: 2008
Directed by: Kurt Kuenne
Also Rankedsee more on Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
'9/11' Starts As A Film About A Firefighter's Burgeoning Career But Ends Up Capturing A National Tragedy Instead
French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudet and New York firefighter James Hanlon set out in 2001 to capture the burgeoning career of Tony Benetatos, a probationary firefighter (a new recruit that's only been on the job for 8-18 months) in the New York City Fire Department.
On September 11, 2001, after a gas leak is reported at Church and Lispenard Streets, Jules Naudet follows Battalion Chief Joseph Pfeifer to investigate. Gedeon stays behind at the firehouse with Benetatos. During the investigation of the gas leak, American Airlines Flight 11 flies overhead, and Naudet turns the camera to follow its path into Tower One of the World Trade Center - one of only three recordings of the collision.
Catfish is the hit documentary that spawned an MTV reality-show staple. In 2010, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman set out to document an online relationship that Ariel's younger brother, Nev, had been having through Facebook with a woman called "Megan." However, after discovering that MP3s of cover songs Megan claimed to have recorded for him were ripped from YouTube, Nev becomes suspicious of what else Megan might be lying to him about.
Slowly, more and more layers are peeled away, leaving Nev, Henry, and Ariel no other choice but to go to the house that Megan claims to live in and uncover the real, sad truth. What they find there is exactly what you suspect but are hoping not to see: "Megan" is actually a lonely middle aged woman, and Nev has been catfished.
Since the film's debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, it's been plagued with questions surrounding its authenticity—viewers and critics have claimed the documentary was faked. The filmmakers have profusely rejected these accusations.
Initial Release: 2010
Directed by: Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
#50 on The Best Cat Thingssee more on Catfish
'Tickled' Starts As Harmless Fun But Turns Into No Laughing Matter
When David Farrier, a light-entertainment TV journalist from New Zealand, begins researching the strange phenomenon of recorded "competitive endurance tickling," he has no idea what kind of world he's getting himself into.
After noting the strangely homoerotic nature of a lot of the tickling videos, Farrier gets in touch with the production company behind the videos, Jane O'Brien Media, but is surprised to receive a pretty angry and homophobic response that asserts the exclusively heterosexual nature of the sport. The further that Farrier digs into this peculiar world, the uglier and more hostile Jane O'Brien Media becomes.
Determined to find out who's behind this, Farrier makes it his mission to track down the owner of Jane O'Brien Media and find out why the company is so aggressive. Along the way, he interviews former employees that accuse the company of blackmail, coercion, and extortion. By the end, you're left wondering if you just watched a documentary about competitive tickling or a true-crime doc about one man's life-long quest for revenge.