The Year In Documentaries



Just as the literary world yielded some of its best surprises in non-fiction books this year, the top factual films have bested their fictional counterparts in terms of courage and originality. Fiction films have suffered from the black hole created by studio absence, but our attention has been shifted onto far more interesting material. Here are my top picks for the documentaries to watch out for.


Martin Luther King’s harassment at the hands of the FBI is not unfamiliar but this is laid out clearly using often surprising archive footage from director Sam Pollard, and yes, it will make you very angry.


In 2015, a fire at Bucharest’s Colectiv club left 27 dead and 180 injured. Soon, more burn victims began dying in hospitals from wounds that were not life-threatening. Then a doctor blew the whistle to a team of journalists working for a Sports freesheet who became investigators. They uncovered an astonishing health care fraud.

The Dissident

Director Bryan Fogel has made a documentary thriller that exposes the labyrinth of deceit behind Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. The duplicity and hypocrisy involved is all the more shocking for being so blatant and uncaring about what anyone thinks of the matter.

The Mole Agent

When a Chilean detective agency looked for someone to infiltrate a care home they picked their 83 year-old leading man to be an unlikely spy. Watching the delightfully deadpan Sergio attempting a FaceTime call or operating secret camera glasses is a joy, but something unexpected happens when he zealously starts his assignment to snoop around the home. The film has caused some controversy for mixing drama with fly-on-the-wall footage.


In a year of fine documentaries, this stands out as extraordinary, despite not making the awards lists. The brother of Kim Jong-Un was murdered in a crowded airport by two young girls. The defence team unravelled what happened as the case took on global proportions. How the innocent girls were duped into becoming murderers will drop your jaw.

Midnight Family

A documentary bringing new meaning to the term ‘ambulance chasing’ as a private ambulance run by one Mexico City family (where there are only a handful of ambulances for millions of residents) attempts to keeps its patients alive even while the family’s daily existence is on life support. There are literal races against time to deliver patients, because if they die embittered relatives refuse to pay up.


Following the lives of a chicken, a pig and a couple of cows – in monochrome, without comment – must be considered the hardcore ne plus ultra of documentary filmmaking, yet Russian filmmaker Viktor Kossakovsky’s film is unexpectedly involving, although it requires a refocussing of film viewing priorities.

Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

Adam Curtis is one of the few filmmakers given carte blanche by the BBC, and has created a number of multi-parters in the past, more viewable in the US now than in the UK. His collage style of video essays is an easy target for lazy parodists, but his latest epic ties up grand themes featured in most of the above films.

Over six long episodes Curtis carefully connects a seemingly disparate group of people including Mao-Tse Tung’s wife, Rachman’s henchman Michael X and Tupac Shakur (whose clearly defined opinions when still a high school student I’d not heard before). Curtis eventually links a dozen or so elements and two decades of personal obsessions into an over-arching theory of why modern life seems little more than a valium-dream. It’s no surprise that protests and anti-corruption movements collapse because human nature is all about the money, but the rise of AI and plans to free us from the decision-making process are seen by the unscrupulous as the next stage of profiting from humans.

This grimly cynical viewpoint is satisfyingly explored although inevitably open-ended, in the sixth and longest episode. It’s bravura, experimental stuff of a kind that no-one else is producing, and deserves to be seen.

5 comments on “The Year In Documentaries”

  1. SteveB says:

    I’ll be back in the UK in a week and watching that Adam Curtis doc on the iplayer is pretty much number 1 on my to do list!!! Can’t wait, actually!

  2. Helen Martin says:

    How vital is this trip, Steve?

  3. Frances says:

    I felt that the mix of drama with fly-on-the-wall in The Mole Agent made it even more powerful. I don’t think it would have been nearly as moving without that dramatic centre.

  4. SteveB says:

    Hi Helen, without me people dont get paid their salaries just for example. There’s a load of stuff that needs my physical presence in an office.
    It’s very tiring with quarantine and paperwork both ways UK / Germany.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Steve, it was very nervy to question you like that and I apologize. It puts the questionee on the defensive. Sorry.

    I loved The Mole Agent. He was doing his best to fulfill his instructions but he was certainly an innocent where spying was concerned. I loved the friendships he made and the kindness he showed to the residents. Yes, a very moving piece – not necessarily due to anything the directors did.

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