• 'The House I Live In' on SBS On Demand. (SBS)Source: SBS
Expand your worldview with these must-see documentaries, all now showing on SBS On Demand.
Sarah Ward

24 Mar 2017 - 2:05 PM  UPDATED 24 Mar 2017 - 2:05 PM

A good film engages and entertains. A great film, however, can open your eyes to a different world, change your perception, and educate and inform, too. In fact, documentary filmmakers are always aiming to do just that, whether their features act as an introduction to a part of history you’ve never come across before or broaden your horizons on a challenging topic.

Here’s ten that manage the feat — and will expand your worldview in the process…


The House I Live In

In 1971, Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. Eight presidents and more than four decades later, it’s still going — and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight. By any reasonable standard, continued conflict spanning almost half a century would be considered a failure, with Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance Film Festival documentary Grand Jury Prize examining the toll of the highly publicised battle from the projects to the prison system. Cops, criminals and even The Wire’s David Simon lend their thoughts, observations and experiences to an impassioned exploration of a complicated topic, positing that enforcing race and class divides are as high on the government’s agenda as stamping out illegal substances.

Watch it right here:


Deep Web

Anyone scrolling through social media feeds or reading online news comments has come to a realisation: the internet can be a strange and terrifying place. On a daily basis, however, most people only scratch the surface of the World Wide Web, with a darker realm lurking away from traditional search engines. Actor turned filmmaker Alex Winter takes viewers on a tour of the virtual spaces known as the deep web and the darknet, primarily focusing on infamous illicit marketplace Silk Road, where purchasing drugs is just one of the criminal activities on offer. And yes, he’s the same Alex Winter best known for playing Bill S. Preston, Esquire to Keanu Reeves’ Ted "Theodore" Logan. Prepare to reconsider your position on one half a fun ‘80s film duo, with Reeves also helping out by providing the documentary’s narration.

Watch it right here:


Snow Monkey

On the streets of Jalalabad, Afghanistan gangs of children go about their days. Some taunt and terrorise. Some endeavour to sell exorcisms, promising anyone who’ll listen a reprieve from bad luck. Some, such as the Snow Monkeys of the documentary’s title, sell ice cream to make money for their families. Acclaimed photojournalist and Sydney Peace Prize winner George Gittoes doesn’t merely capture their tale, but gives the kids in question cameras to get their point of view as well. Theirs isn’t a happy tale, but it is an intimate and eye-opening one.

Watch it right here:


Murder on a Sunday Morning

Justice might be blind, but, as Murder on a Sunday Morning demonstrates, those sworn to uphold it can certainly see colour. When 15-year-old Brenton Butler was stopped by Jacksonville police following the shooting of two tourists in 2000, one of the officers would later explain their motivation: the shade of his skin. Discriminating by race, the cops were convinced it was a routine case, even ensuring that the teenager confessed. Watching the Academy Award-winning French documentary follow Butler’s efforts to proclaim his innocence not only lays bare the investigation methods that led to his arrest, but the role that prejudice still plays in America’s system of law and order.

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The Gatekeepers

For the first time ever, six surviving former heads of Israel's secret service discuss the organisation’s inner workings. The immense scope of their revelations can’t be understated; since 1967, Shin Bet has sat at the centre of the country’s activities in the West Bank and Gaza, while endeavouring to protect against attacks, spies and data breaches. There may be little flash to the film that eventuates, but there doesn’t need to be: their words say more than enough. Substance prevails over style as their conversations become more intricate and immersive, and prove perennially relevant to the inner workings of the intelligence world.

Watch it right here:


My Perestroika

When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did a way of life for its inhabitants, with both painted in positive terms by the international media. Combining ‘70s and ‘80s home videos with contemporary interviews, the Peabody-winning My Perestroika asks five Moscow residents to reveal the reality behind the rhetoric as they look back at their lives — as children happy with the status quo, and then as adults forced to adjust to a brave new world. In the process, modern-day existence in Russia is thrust into the spotlight, and so is the way that the world at large is guilty of approaching history in broad and abstract rather than intimate and specific terms.

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Dreams of a Life

For three years, Joyce Vincent endured many people’s worst nightmares. Mercifully, she wasn’t alive to experience it. Her dead body remained undiscovered and decomposing in her North London flat between 2003 and 2006, with documentarian Carol Morley driven to ask the essential question: how? Morley pieces together the tale behind the international headlines, using haunting recreations to paint a portrait of a woman doomed to a fate that nobody wants. Unsurprisingly, a mood of loneliness is inescapable as her sorrowful plight is revealed, as is anger and accusations levelled at a society that could allow such a situation to arise.

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Born into Brothels

In Born into Brothels, photographer turned filmmaker Zana Briski finds hope — and offers it — in a place most wouldn’t. Arriving in Calcutta to photograph prostitutes, she soon becomes more fascinated with their children, giving them cameras so that they could snap their own experiences. The kids take to their task with enthusiasm, not only documenting the sights in front of them, but using their newfound mode of expression as a stepping stone to a better life. As moving as it is insightful, the end result won the 2005 Oscar for best documentary as well as the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

Watch it right here:



Following in the footsteps of Michael Moore’s fired-up Bowling for Columbine and Gus van Sant’s striking fictionalisation Elephant, Pekka offers exactly what its subtitle promises — a look inside the mind of a school shooter. Charting the events of Finland’s Jokela school massacre, the documentary doesn’t try to explain Pekka-Eric Auvinen’s fateful behaviour, but to understand what drove him to spark such a senseless tragedy. Expect harrowing viewing as the film retraces his life, canvasses those who knew him best, and delves into his own words, as captured in troubling YouTube videos.

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Crossing the Line

Sometimes, a story needs to be seen to be believed. The tale of Joe Dresnok is just such a story. In 1962, while serving as an American soldier in South Korea, Dresnok defected to the North and wasn’t heard from for decades. Why? How? What happened next? What kind of life did he lead in the years that followed? They’re all understandable questions, which Crossing the Line does its best to answer. In addition to solving the riddle of a disappeared deserter, the Christian Slater-narrated film also offers considerable footage of something just as revelatory: everyday North Korean life.

Watch it right here:

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