10 Great documentaries to watch in 2016

Who doesn’t like a great documentary?

When I was in high school my physics teacher was a Bowling Green grad with a degree in biology. He was probably astute in that subject, but physics was nearly as big a challenge for him as it was for the class. As a result we watched a lot of documentaries, primarily national geographic.

That does not really have anything to do with anything, but it came to mind.

Over the last couple of years I’ve watched many, many really good documentaries. If you are getting tired of the same old same old on TV, try these. Many of these are on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or both. Others are on DVD purchase below. With a little searching some can be found online for free viewing.

The Square is an account of the Tahrir Square centered revolt in Egypt that began in January 2011. Beginning with the protests against longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, through Muslim Brotherhood victories in government, to the fall of Brotherhood Prime Minister Mohommad Morsi, their weapon of war was the camera. It follows the exploits of actor-turned-activist Khalid Abdalla, revolutionary leader Ahmad Hassan, and citizen-journalist/film maker Aida El Kashef. [Graphic language and violence]

The Square movie documentary

Winter on Fire is a similar documentary chronicling the uprising in Ukraine in the winter of 2013-2014. What began as peaceful protests against then president Viktor F. Yanukovich, resulted in violent clashes as government forces attacked. The revolutionaries ultimately built barricades, going full blown Les Mis for weeks in the dead of winter. Footage of a 16-year-old calling his mother to tell her goodbye is beautiful and heartbreaking. This is a riveting documentary. [Graphic violence including people dying on camera, language, brief (but full) nudity of an arrested man]

Winter on Fire documentary

The Invisible War is the angering narrative of sexual assault and rape in the U.S. military. It was nominated for an Oscar and won several film awards including Sundance, Independent Spirit, and International Documentary Association, as well as TIME’s Top 10. At issue is the ease with which people, men and women, in the military are sexually assaulted, and the difficulty they have in getting convictions. At issue, due to military chain of command, is many of the victims are required to report their rape to their rapist. [Frank discussion of rape and its aftermath]

The Invisible War

Gideon’s Army is the highly informative documentary about the public defender system in the United States. Following the work of two or three Georgia defenders, we see how the system functions especially when poor people are arrested and put into the criminal justice system. This documentary is important if you want to understand how “innocent until proven guilty” works, and doesn’t work, on a practical level. [Some language]

Gideon's Army documentary

Nefarious: Merchant of Souls: “From the first scene, Nefarious gives an in-depth look at the human trafficking industry, showing where slaves are sold (often in developed, affluent countries), where they work, and where they are confined. With footage shot in over nineteen different countries, Nefarious exposes the nightmare of sex slavery as experienced by hundreds of thousands daily, through the eyes of both the enslaved and their traffickers. Nefarious features expert analysis from international humanitarian leaders, and captures the gripping and triumphant testimonies of survivors in order to galvanize hope and vision.” This is a brutal, challenging, necessary documentary. [Sex trafficking and prostitution language]


The House I Live In is a powerful and needed critique of the “War” on Drugs. If you remain convinced the 40-year effort has been successful, is effective, or is needed, please watch this film immediately. The effort has empowered cartels, filled prisons with non-violent, mostly poor offenders, enriched for-profit prison systems, destroyed lives, and more. Opposition to the “War” on Drugs does not imply support for drug use; it is opposition to a failed public policy. [Language]

The House I Live In

Inside Job may have been the first documentary about the global financial crisis of the late 2000s. Including interviews with many major players from multiple governments and financial institutions, it’s excellent. Directed by Charles Ferguson who also directed No End in Sight, a documentary about the Iraq War. (Language)

Inside Job documentary

Making a Murderer is the one you can barely get away from right now. It’s the video version of NPR’s wildly successful Serial podcast (not the story, the genre). Making a Murderer is a Netflix Original Documentary about the conviction, freeing, arrest and conviction of Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. A complex story, MaM have been criticized for omitting critical information that could affect viewers’ conclusions about the case. Regardless of bias (all docs are affected by that to some degree), MaM provides needed insight into the criminal justice system. [Language, subject matter involving rape, murder, sexual assault]

making a murderer lineup

Last Days in Vietnam was directed by Rory Kennedy (daughter of Robert F.) for PBS. I saw it at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville. Tracking the pullout of the American military from Saigon, primarily through the decisions made by then-ambassador, Graham Martin, Kennedy interviews pilots, embassy guards, ship captains, evacuees, and some who missed the opportunity to leave. Told so evenhandedly it belies the sentiment of the times to highlight some remarkable, even heroic, deeds. Last Days in Vietnam is one of my all-time favorite documentaries. [Language]

Last Days in Vietnam film documentary

The Last Word covers the tragic events surrounding the rape and murder of a nun in Abilene, TX, Halloween night, and the eventual arrest of 17-year-old Johnny Frank Garrett, his conviction, and execution. Director Jesse Quackenbush gives viewers a “death penalty obsessed District Attorney and his lap-dog medical examiner, ladder climbing cops, bloodthirsty media, enraged and fearful jurors, incompetent defense lawyers, politicized judges, witch hunting religious zealots and an iron-fisted Governor with national ambitions meld together as perfect ingredients for a plate of government sponsored murder.” Sixteen years after Garrett’s execution evidence was found exonerating him. The film is heavy-handed on the good vs evil emphasis, playing up the nun and Halloween too much, but it’s what happens after Garrett’s execution that gives the documentary its name, and its lingering spookiness. [Language, subject matter]

the last word

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Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.