The Most Controversial Documentaries Of All Time

Since the first documentary was released in the early 1920s, filmmakers have tried to capture the human experience while also pushing the envelope. But what happens when a documentary takes things too far? Is it still a documentary if certain aspects are staged?

While films such as Bowling for Columbine and Titicut Follies are considered groundbreaking for their depictions of injustice, some viewers and critics find them outright exploitative. From one-sided takes on an issue to graphic depictions of violence, some of the most famous documentaries are also among the most controversial.

In this list, we'll delve into some of the most controversial documentaries of all time, and figure out why many of these films continue to ruffle feathers decades after their original release.

  • The Act of Killing explores the mass murder of nearly a million people in Indonesia from 1965-1966 following a failed political coup. It depicts some of the perpetrators of these killings re-enacting their crimes in a variety of theatrical styles, including gangster, Western, and musical.

    The Indonesian government condemned the film and claimed that it misrepresented the country as "cruel and lawless."

  • Released in 2013, Blackfish documents the killing of three people, including a SeaWorld employee, by the orca (also called killer whale) Tilikum. The film claims that whales develop psychoses and become aggressive in captivity, and that SeaWorld put its own employees in danger.

    While the theme park called the documentary "propaganda," Blackfish was largely defended by both film critics and animal activists, and SeaWorld subsequently stopped including orcas in its shows.

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  • The Killing of America

    The Killing of America
    Photo: Toho-Towa

    Although The Killing of America was released in 1982, it only became widely available to the American public in late 2016, with its first-ever domestic DVD release. The documentary pieces together a stream of violent footage highlighting the epidemic of gun violence in the US, including the assassinations of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy.

    It also explores the rise in serial killers during the 1970s; some of its featured interviews are with Edmund Kemper, Elmer Wayne Henley, and Susan Atkins of the Manson Family.

  • The Bridge
    Photo: IFC Films

    The Bridge documents 365 days at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, during which time the film captures the suicides of nearly two dozen individuals. The documentary met criticism from the city of San Francisco, which said the director misrepresented his project, and also from suicide advocacy groups, which stated the film was extremely triggering.

    While referred to as a "snuff film" by some critics, others claim it led to increased security and suicide prevention at the iconic golden bridge.

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  • Although considered revolutionary during its 1922 debut, Nanook of the North is now seen as highly controversial, largely because most of the film is staged. It has been criticized for its depiction of the Inuit people of the Canadian Arctic; they had easy access to modern amenities and technology by the early 1920s, but the film shows Nanook building an igloo and using a harpoon (in actuality, he preferred using guns).

    Additionally, his real name was Allakariallak, but the director changed it for marketing purposes.

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  • Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 documented the events leading up to and following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, sparking a heated political debate. Critics claimed Moore took events out of context, "distorted" them, and created "propaganda" meant to tarnish President George W. Bush.

    Conservative groups even went so far as to try getting the film banned. Moore maintained that the Bush administration didn't do enough to prevent the attacks or track down the guilty parties.

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