Whatever you think of when you hear the word “documentary,” it probably isn’t “sexy,” or “terrifying,” or even “interesting.” People have been making documentaries for as long as they’ve been making feature films, but the documentary film has been co–opted by lazy high–school teachers and studio executives, and we now think of documentaries as slow, squeaky clean, and full of pretty pictures. There’s a time and place for that—Street loves , don’t get us wrong—but documentaries are much more diverse than that. Whatever spicy, weird stuff you’re into, we can almost guarantee you someone has made a doc on it, so here are some of our favorites:
Paris Is Burning
Paris Is Burning recently got selected for preservation by the Library of Congress’s film registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Don’t let the stuffiness of that descriptor fool you—Paris is Burning is gorgeous, flamboyant, and absolutely riveting. A chronicle of “ball culture” in New York City, Paris Is Burning is an introduction to the world of 1980s drag and the way that it was composed of and enmeshed with marginalized communities—transgender, Latino, and black people, sex workers, and HIV/AIDS patients. Paris is Burning is a relic of history that feels as fresh and fierce as ever, and it’s a classic that won’t put you to sleep.
For some reason, Netflix loves to make drug documentaries. There are a lot of them—one for almost every illicit substance you can think of—and they attempt to tackle just about every angle of using. There are surprisingly few documentaries that show the funner side of getting high, but if you’re in the mood to celebrate drug culture, check out Rolling Papers—a film about the first marijuana beat reporter for a major newspaper. If you’re looking for something a little darker, try Heroin(e)—a story of three women in positions of power, doing their best to fight the opioid addiction epidemic in West Virginia.
Hot Girls Wanted/Whore’s Glory
The sex work industry is one of the most sensationalized and least understood industries in the world today. Feminists both decry it and celebrate it, politicians condemn it and push for it to be legalized, and millions across the globe quietly participate as clients—or as the products themselves. The portrayal of sex work in documentary film is as complicated as it is in the real world, and it would feel reductive to just highlight one, so Street recommends two—Hot Girls Wanted and Whore’s Glory. Hot Girls Wanted explores one of the biggest facets of the sex work industry today—Internet porn—and tells the story of young women lured into the “amateur” industry with a wary tone. Whore’s Glory takes a more triumphant tone to explore prostitution in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico. They’re great individually, but together they give an even more comprehensive picture of what sex work looks like today.
Another area rife with documentary potential is true crime—and it’s because people absolutely love it. From podcasts like Serial to docuseries like Making a Murderer, people lose their minds for stories about the worst, most disgusting crimes that can be committed. If you’re looking for your fix, try The Keepers: a Spotlight–esque series about a widely adored nun and school teacher who meets a grisly end—and the powerful institutions that kept the truth about her death from coming out.
Even weirder than true crime, most people secretly share an interest in cults. I know that I have spent way too much time on the Wikipedia pages of and , and if you have, too, you should add Holy Hell to your queue. The story of a man who graduates from film school and promptly joins the Southern California based cult Buddhafield, Holy Hell centers around The Teacher—the charismatic figure who goes from being the hero that people flock to into a monster in his own right. The film starts off by portraying him as a shirtless, stoic shaman, and then slowly reveals the horror of his crimes: so, as the film progresses, we are taken on the same journey as the cult members were during his reign.