Not only did this nail-biting documentary about a school spelling bee inspire audiences and critics, but it made them feel extremely unintelligent. Spellbound then went on to pick up an Oscar nomination. Eight juvenile orthographers share the raised platform, blowing our tiny minds with their encyclopedic knowledge of the English dictionary as well as their enviable passion and ambition.
Louis Theroux Extreme Love – Autism (2012)
In 2012, everyone’s favourite inquisitive lank took a bespectacled nose-dive into the complex world of autism, to fascinating ends. Louis spends time with various families whose lives are governed by the condition, befriending the children and lending an ear to their borderline heroic parents. The well-to-do everyman uses a process of trial-and-error when communicating with the kids, making ground with some and losing others.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
The landmark documentary that tops most best-of-all-time lists is a sprawling tale of two disadvantaged basketball prodigies and their quests to make it to the NBA. Not only does this multi-award winning doco force us to form emotional bonds with its two burgeoning subjects, but also to consider wider social issues of privilege and poverty. Don’t let the '90s production values dissuade you – this is one of those rare cases where the exhaustive hype is more than warranted.
Watch Hoop Dreams on SBS On Demand:
Born into Brothels (2004)
Another legendary documentary takes us to India’s red light district and into the lives of young children born to prostitutes. While Brothels took home Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards, both prostitution organisations and the Indian media cited it for exploitation.
Kid Criminals (2015)
This two-part peek behind the bolted doors of US juvenile correctional facilities is not for the easily rattled. The first takes us to Pendleton Juvenile Correctional Facility in Indiana, and face-to-face with kids charged with extreme sexual offences. The second veers towards minors in rehabilitative programs for other crimes, making for a stark comparison.
He Named Me Malala (2015)
If review aggregation website Metacritic is any indication, then 49 percent of you will dislike this documentary. As criticised as it was praised, Malala focuses on Nobel Prize-winning human rights activist Malala Yousafzai, and her bravery both before and after she was shot in the face for standing up against the Taliban. While the doco suffers from unnecessary animation and an indecisive tone, Malala’s story and the time we get to spend with her make it well worth the price of admission.
7 Up (1964)
Unparalleled in ambition and scope, Michael Apted’s Up series is as much a scrapbook of 49 years of London history as it is a chronicle of 14 of its citizens. In the first of eight docos, 7 Up introduced us to a cast of kids from disparate backgrounds with the aim of revisiting them every seven years. The idea was to test how socioeconomic class determines one’s future. Eight documentaries later and with no end in sight, this fascinating series contradicts as much as it confirms presumptions, and when viewed in quick succession takes “life flashing before your eyes” to a new level.
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
Friedman patriarch Arnold and his son Jesse both admitted to multiple counts of child sexual abuse, despite later claims of innocence. The documentary looks for explanations by spending time with the Friedmans and their alleged victims. Directed by Andrew Jarecki, who also wrote and directed The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. Watch the whole thing here.
Louis Theroux’s Transgender Kids (2015)
Transgender Kids is a neat companion piece to Growing up Trans. Intimate and revealing, this documentary addresses questions that are no-brainers to some, but to others come with no easy answers.
I’ve snuck this animated autobiographical account of growing up alongside the Iranian revolution into the list, as it is one person’s "document" of events. OK, so I’m cheating, but if it leads to more people checking out Persepolis, I’ll take the hit.
Jesus Camp (2002)
Of all the unsettling things on earth, watching young children speak in tongues has got to be one of them. Filmmakers Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing take us deep into an Evangelical Christian camp where children as young as six are training for “God’s army”. It’s difficult not to judge the adult aspect of the organisation, which is heaven-bent on keeping the fundamentalist blinders on each and every kid in the camp. It needs to be seen to be believed.
Watch Jesus Camp on SBS On Demand:
Dancing in Jaffer (2013)
What better way to bridge the divide between Israel and Palestine than through dancing kids? These little tykes on each sides of the ancient conflict come together in the name of rhythm and step, saddled with preconceived fears and judgements that are tested, tried, and, thanks to an undeniable shared humanity, largely proved doctrinal and irrelevant. The resulting hope is heartwarming.
Watch Dancing in Jaffer on SBS On Demand:
Growing Up Trans (2015)
The enthralling story of eight prepubescent children grappling with complex questions usually reserved for later in life.
Watch Growing Up Trans on SBS On Demand: