BY Richard Austen

Streaming Suggestions is a month-by-month series of recommendations for film lovers and those interested in expanding their horizons.

While I assume most readers will have at least one of the popular streaming services, I understand that some don’t, so I have also included excellent free services such as Kanopy (UNSW), SBS on Demand, Vimeo and YouTube.

This month, I’m doing a focus on documentary filmmaking. I’ve found not enough people watch documentaries, and many that do, view them as simply educational videos rather than real films. So in this article, I’m highlighting some of the best documentary films and series available to stream, with a very liberal dose of Werner Herzog. Buckle up. Get your popcorn. Get your soda. Get your spaghetti and meatballs. This is gonna be a long list.


Louis Theroux Series - available as of 28 June 2020

Known for his faux-ingenuousness, Louis Theroux is one of the most consistent and provocative documentary-makers of his time. His body of work is (mostly) available on Stan, and is a really excellent introduction into subcultures, strange personalities, and mental illnesses. Beginning with ‘Weird Weekends’, Theroux’s earlier work on the subcultures of America (in retrospect) may be seen as amusing, if not a little juvenile. The Christianity, UFOs and Wrestling episodes of the series are especially funny, and are an enlightening perspective on the fringes of American society. A gradual change can be seen in his work post-Weird Weekends, into a more disciplined and mature approach to documentary-making, with more serious subject matters being tackled. His most interesting works include ‘Gambling in Law Vegas’, ‘A Place for Paedophiles’, and ‘The Most Hated Family in America’. Theroux’s most recent works are really touching pieces, and show a growth in his ability to tackle the profound realities of everyday life. ‘Extreme Love- Dementia’, ‘Drinking to Oblivion’ and ‘Edge of Life’ are real cinema, and their emotional resonance is deep (think: the opening scene of Pixar’s ‘Up’). A final recommendation for Louis Theroux’s work is in his retrospective documentary ‘Savile’. It explores Theroux’s relationship (and friendship) with one of the England’s worst sex offenders, Jimmy Savile, and the mistakes he had made when making the documentary ‘When Louis met Jimmy Savile’. He describes himself as gullible and discusses with Savile’s victims how the man was able to so extensively commit those horrendous crimes. Overall, Louis Theroux is an excellent documentarian, and his style is sui generis; this is a great place to get started in the world of documentaries.

“Whether it was Jesus or just the vibes of a good night out, I definitely felt something”


The Summit - available as of 28 June 2020

An exciting, fear-inducing documentary, 'The Summit' covers the events of the 2008 K2 disaster. K2 has been said to arguably be the most difficult of all mountains to climb, with its creeping glaciers and infamous ‘Bottleneck’. The K2 disaster was one of the worst in mountaineering history, and this documentary tells the story really well. ‘The Summit’ doesn’t have a great deal to say in terms of higher truths, but it is a fascinating exploration into this almost, sub-culture of mountain climbing, full of relatively foolish, and crazy people, willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of that elusive summit. The film is great at systematically recounting the heart-stopping events that happened in the disaster, using footage taken during the time, and re-enactments that work quite seamlessly. This has pretty much everything you’d ever want from a documentary on mountain-climbers. Equal parts horrifying, and touching, ‘The Summit’ is an engaging feature that touches on real tragedy. Definitely check this one out.

“Only the mountain knows”

Searching for Sugarman - available as of 28 June 2020

An excellent narrative documentary that covers the life of Rodriguez, one of the great, ‘undiscovered’ musicians of the 1970s. Malik Bendjelloul directs this film with a unique love for the music, something that can’t be faked. It was the only film he made before his passing in 2014, but it’s a sure-handed one. Gentle, unassuming, and always entertaining, Sugar Man will change the way you think about music, about people, and about legacy. This is one of the most touching, personal tributes to a great musician, and a rousing documentary.

“Sugar man you're the answer, that makes my questions disappear”


Hoop Dreams - available as of 28 June 2020

A parallel narrative documentary film, 'Hoop Dreams' follows two African-American students and their dreams of becoming professional basketball players. It’s an excellent sociological kind of documentary. We as an audience need to be aware, that by the very nature of the camera, things are changed. These boys’ lives are forever different when this film airs. How can they cope, what effect will this film have on their careers? Always, this needs to be considered when watching these types of documentaries, and it is especially interesting when one discovers what happened to the boys after the creation of the film. William Gates and Arthur Agee are the central characters in the film, both from poor African-American neighbourhoods (Gates having lived in Cabrini-Green, a similarly doomed housing project to Pruitt-Igoe). Their dreams of becoming professional basketball players from the very start, seem unlikely. One of them is a troubled kid, not much going for him except his basketball skills. This central premise is a compelling one, engaging the audience completely throughout the film, but the film is about more than their dreams, it’s about class structures in America, race, and the values of American Society. This film the perfect encapsulation and summation of American Life. Not ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, not ‘The Searchers’, and certainly not ‘Gone with the Wind’. It presents America in all of its glory and flaws. The American Dream, and the American Tragedy. What happens to the boys in this film? Where are they now? What happened to their dreams, aspirations, and desires? Let me just say, it’s neither a dream nor a tragedy. It’s never that easy.

“That's why when somebody say, "when you get to the NBA, don't forget about me", and that stuff. Well, I should've said to them, "if I don't make it, don't you forget about me."

I Am Not Your Negro - available as of 28 June 2020

Raoul Peck’s film is a singular piece of filmmaking. To even call it a film is to diminish it. It’s an abstraction and consolidation of James Baldwin’s life, his musings, his relationships and his feelings. It presents James Baldwin as a man, who was always ever in the background to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. He was older than them, but he outlived them and many of his peers. Peck’s film isn’t something to watch, feel a bit sad about the state of the world, and move on with. It’s a serious piece that affects one, a call to action to see that racism isn’t just that irrational hick down the road. It’s supported by an institutional framework, perpetuated by the silent acquiescence and manufactured consent of the many, to subjugate the relative ‘few’. Watch this.

“What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a n****r in the first place, because I'm not a n****r, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it.”


Hypernormalisation - available as of 28 June 2020

Adam Curtis is one of the foremost political documentary-makers of the 21st century, and ‘Hypernormalisation’ is a solid culmination and condensation of his work. The film plays out with a very apt thesis; since the 1970’s, the Western world has become a simplistic simulacrum of true reality, propped up by governments and corporations, so that we, as ‘normal’ people are led like asinine sheep through the sphere of politics and life. Certainly an intelligent idea (although not completely convincing to me), and it is excellently explored through a series of episodes about very specific examples in this fake world. Curtis takes us through a flurry of events; Gaddafi’s uprising and fall, Donald Trump’s connections with the Yakuza, the finance supercomputer ‘Aladdin’, and a whole lot more. It’s an amazingly interesting discourse on the state of the world today, and has a great soundtrack, with music by Brian Eno, Ennio Morricone and Nine Inch Nails.

“We live in a strange time. Extraordinary events keep happening that undermine the stability of our world. Suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and even Brexit. Yet those in control seem unable to deal with it. No one has any idea of a different, or a better future”

More Than One Thing - available as of 28 June 2020

‘More Than One Thing’ is probably going to be the most obscure film I ever recommend in this series (I am the sole reviewer of it on Letterboxd!). Its obscurity however, has no bearing on the quality of the film; it’s an excellently made documentary-short that covers the hopes and dreams of a young man, Billy Towns, who lives in the housing projects, and wants to do at least ‘more than one thing’ in his life. I came across this film through my research into the infamous St. Louis Housing Project, Pruitt-Igoe, and it really presents a moving portrait of a certain time and place in America, one where people faced the derelict surroundings of their everyday lives, and yet dreamed and even, expected a better future. The film is a strong mix of stylisation and interview, with an inflection of jazz. It captures, much like ‘Hoop Dreams’, the dreams and aspirations of young African Americans, and how, for most, the social and class circumstances essentially predetermine their fates, set their limits, and stifle the American Dream.

“I come from the ghettos… I don’t know why they call them the ghettos”

The Pruitt-Igoe Myth - expires 31 July 2020

More of a special-interest choice by me than a recommendation based on its strength as a film, ‘The Pruitt-Igoe Myth’ is nonetheless a fascinating insight into a subject unknown by many. The Pruitt-Igoe housing projects were constructed in the 1950s and were, at one point, praised as some of the ‘best apartments of the year’. The apartments symbolised a new start for many African-Americans, a new life that people could lead and rise above the institutional racism and poverty that was imposed upon them. That was the dream, but the reality differed from it quite significantly. Cost-cutting measures, segregation, poor design choices and inadequate maintenance drove the apartments to disarray, and they quickly became the great shame for American Modernism. This film addresses all of the problems, the narratives and the myths behind the buildings. Racism is the key ingredient that is prevalent throughout it all, the myth that, it was the African-American ghetto dwellers that brought down this great American vision. This myth was circulated for decades, never really being completely dispelled except in relatively obscure journal articles. Now, this documentary provides a firm refutation of the myth, and presents it as it always should have been; a dream.

“It was our home. It was a good thing. Nobody could tell me, anybody that made it, made it for a bad thing.”


Into the Inferno - available as of 28 June 2020

Werner Herzog’s ‘Into the Inferno’ presents a variety of intriguing cultural perspectives on volcanos. Don’t come into this documentary expecting an educational video on volcanos, Herzog leaves that to the textbooks, instead, he presents views by many different cultures on volcanos, how they are seen as spirits, as monuments, and as portents of death. A touching sequence in this documentary is Herzog’s tribute to Maurice and Katia Krafft, a Volcanologist couple who were known for their extraordinary footage of live volcanos. Herzog, in his thick Bavarian accent tells of their life story, and tragic demise when filming a live volcano in Japan; he narrates against a Verdi requiem, and the moment becomes transcendent. This is a really great, and accessible documentary to introduce you to Werner Herzog’s work.

“The sun dimeth / the land sinketh / Gusheth forth steam / And gutting fire / To the heaven soar / The hurtling flames / Of the mighty gods / The engulfing doom”

Dirty Money - available as of 28 June 2020

Netflix’s documentary series ‘Dirty Money’ is a great piece of issue-journalism that explores some of the most ridiculous and profound ways that people manipulate and exploit others, through money. White-collar crime, maple-syrup heists and extreme avarice are what this series thrives on, and its exploration of the issues surrounding (let’s face it) the structures underlying capitalism and how people are so easily able to manipulate it, gain power, and change the system to benefit themselves. Every episode is worth a watch, and the directorial styles and ways of storytelling change constantly, keeping a refreshing way of looking at the issues. The series never really concerns itself with deeper issues regarding humans, their motivations (apart from obvious greed), or a Herzogian Ecstatic Truth. Its unassuming presentation of the facts creates a compelling argument, and every episode leaves you both depressed at the state of the world, and with a newfound impetus to try and help out in some way.

“You don’t know me. And why should you? I’m just the idea of a young girl you’ve never met…”

Wormwood - available as of 28 June 2020

Errol Morris is at once a Herzog protégé, and a Herzog contemporary. He creates vastly different films to Werner Herzog’s work, but the crux of both filmmakers is the same; an innate curiosity in people, a contempt for the rules, and a strong grasp of storytelling. Morris is more concerned with lies, personalities and stylisations in his films. ‘Wormwood’ is no exception to this, and Morris seems to be leaning hard into the stylisation of his re-enactments, with some extraordinary imagery. The series itself concerns the CIA and its Project MKUltra, with the central focus being on a man who was drugged with LSD and fell/jumped/dived/dropped out of a hotel window. The CIA denies and obfuscates, but one things remains telling from the evidence that they did keep; a CIA assassination manual instructs agents, "The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface". This is a pretty minor work by Morris, it’s a bit too long and the re-enactments tend to overpower the strength of the interviews, but nonetheless, it’s a readily available introduction into the work of Errol Morris, one of the great documentarians.

“And the third angel sounded. And there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp. And it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood.”


Happy People - available as of 28 June 2020

Dmitry Vasyukov presents a flawed, but fascinating four-part series on the lives of trappers, living in the Siberian Taiga. The parts correspond to seasons, and I would recommend the ‘Spring’ episode as a short but excellent introduction into the indulgently long series. Why am I recommending this? Because essentially its one degree away from Werner Herzog, who made the brilliant consolidation of Vasyukov’s work ‘Happy People: A Year In The Taiga’. This series isn’t as tight, and suffers from a lack of Herzogian narration, but it is an excellent wealth of footage of these fascinating people, who live mostly off the land, in the harshness of the Taiga. An especially memorable scene is when we find out how they deal with their atrocious mosquito problem. Stripping the bark off pine trees, carefully making a tar out of it, and smothering it over their themselves, their children and their dogs. A wonderful little sequence, and reflective of the whole series.

“Of course, a good craftsman will make good skis using good wood. Getting around in these is sheer pleasure. You might have factory-made ones. If you go into the Woods, you'll drop dead from fatigue after 15 kilometres. You won't be able to move a leg.”

Requiem for the American Dream - available as of 28 June 2020

If you have not, by now, ever read a Noam Chomsky book, go read one. ‘Requiem for the American Dream’ is a consolidation of Chomsky’s views on America as the global hegemonic power of the world post-World War II, and how the political system has engendered a ‘manufactured consent’ in the population of the many. This film, much like Curtis’ ‘Hypernormalisation’ presents a cogent thesis about the way the world is, opening one’s eyes to the hypocrisies of our Western political landscape. We as Australians have just as much to worry about as the American population because of our grovelling at the superpower that is the USA. The film sets out Chomsky’s ten principles of the wealthy, that although not exactly ‘consciously’ adopted by them, is essentially how concentration of wealth occurs, and how it leads to concentration of power. Chomsky has been one of the foremost intellectuals in the public arena to continually speak out and support progressive causes and to highlight the problems within the western world. This documentary is a great start if you want to get into his work, and will present to you a view of the world you probably had never even considered before.

“Like my close friend for many years, Howard Zinn, put it in his words that "What matters is the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the significant events that enter into history." They're the ones who have done things in the past and they're the ones who have to do it in the future.”

Des Mort - available as of 28 June 2020

A Mondo film that doesn’t debase itself with the sensational exploitation of its tasteless counterparts such as Faces of Death and Mondo Cane, ‘Des Mort’ (or, Of The Dead) is a documentary that takes a serious approach to death, and doesn’t balk at showing images of real death. Not a film for the faint-hearted, it shows real footage of funeral rituals in Thailand and juxtaposes them against the sterile, coldness of American ‘death’ and burial. What distinguishes this from the other Mondo films of the genre is that it never provides tongue-in-cheek commentary, or musings about cliché truisms of death. Instead, it tackles four-square how different cultures react to, and embrace death; the predetermined fate of all our species. Much like Werner Herzog’s documentaries on nature, the film gives one a sense of the overwhelming indifference the world has towards us. Don’t watch this if you have a weak stomach, and definitely don’t watch it with anybody else. It’s a singular experience that acts as a memento mori, reminding one about the inevitability of death, and it’s a fascinating exploration into something many of us don’t like to think about.

Side-note: The film is available as a ‘ripped VHS’ stream on YouTube, likely without the permission of the filmmakers, however due to the age and relative rarity of physical copies, this is the essentially the only way to watch it. Most Mondo filmmakers were sleazy Japanese weirdos or Z-Grade Italian directors, so I don’t think they’ll mind too much.

“Oh dead, accept this glass of liquor”

Interview with a Cannibal - available as of 28 June 2020

Vice has a plethora of great documentaries on its YouTube page, and ‘Interview with a Cannibal’ may be their best. Issei Sagawa is an unusual man to say the least. In 1981, he was living in Paris when he killed and subsequently ate a Dutch woman. The most surprising thing is, that he doesn’t quite seem insane; he knows of the atrocious things he has done, he has the ability to self-reflect and criticise himself, yet there is always lurking in the background, his depraved sexual fetish. He was deemed legally insane and released after two years of detention. It raises questions of what it means to be insane, what insanity really is, and how does such an insanity come to occur.

An extraordinarily short man, he holds himself up as if he had dignity. His greasy, sweaty skin underneath his balding hear shines in the light. He has an adorable dog, well-manicured and it has no inkling of who its owner is. On his bookshelf, he proudly displays a book ‘L’Ordre Cannibale’ (The Cannibal Order), its gruesome cover, the infamous Goya painting ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’. In the background of his room, a Leni Riefenstahl poster.

This is a horrific documentary, not just for the tasteless drawings Sagawa shows, but also in his unashamed description of how he ate his victim. His twisted logic, the problems he had in eating her. What I find most interesting about Sagawa and his paintings, is that he draws himself as this pathetic, devil-like creature, frail and ugly. How does he live with himself? Is anything he says even true?

The filmmaking is just fine, but I question the production and final result; is it exploitative to show the disfigured corpse of the victim? Is it in good taste to show Sagawa’s lascivious cravings wholly? This is for you to decide. I’m not quite sure how to feel about the documentary, but what I can say, is that it makes me feel something that I don’t ordinarily feel. It’s some amalgam of disgust, morbid curiosity, pity and shame, that such a creature may even be identified a part of the human species.

Another idea the documentary brings to mind is the underground culture in Japanese society (or in reality, most societies), that some people will support this disgusting human being, he is a writer, an artist now. More successful than he likely ever would have been if it weren’t for the cannibalism. There are photos of him with other women, others engage with him, he even says “Japanese people nowadays are really stupid. They have the same mentality as I, a terrible criminal, did”. Seriously. Don’t watch this if you are easily shocked.

“Maybe if we had dinner once more, I wouldn’t have eaten her”


Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World - available as of 28 June 2020

A minor documentary effort by Herzog, Lo and Behold is a solid exploration of the origins of the internet, and where it will go in the future. Herzog covers a range of ideas within the documentary, artificial intelligence, electromagnetism sensitivity, sending humans to Mars and the somewhat novel question of if the internet dreams of itself. Herzog strives in this documentary to glean some sort of truth, but I feel he never is able to fully grasp the nature of the technology (perhaps nobody is) and thus can’t present his usual profound Truths. There are moments however, of touching poignancy, when Herzog captures monks wandering about, on their smartphones, against Elvis singing ‘Are you lonesome tonight?’. There is real power in this scene. I do not know what it means, but it is powerful, and it is striking. The film is worth a watch just for that scene, everything else is a bonus.

“Could it be, that the internet dreams of itself?”

Amazon Prime

Diego Maradona - available as of 28 June 2020" class="redactor-linkify-object">

The third film in Asif Kapadia’s (so far) trilogy of celebrity biography films. His first, ‘Senna’ is an unequivocal masterpiece, and ‘Amy’ isn’t far behind it. Maradona is in hindsight, a perfect subject for Kapadia to have handled. A magnificent rise to fame, his iconic status making him essentially a god to many, and the problems of consolidating his identities; Diego the hard-working, insecure man, and Maradona, the cocky, womanising coke-fiend. Kapadia’s form and style remains relatively unchanged from ‘Senna’, mostly archival footage narrated by the characters surrounding the story. It’s a solid technique, and works well. The film itself is a bit too long though, overstaying its welcome just a little bit. No doubt this is an essential watch for football and Maradona fans, but I also recommend it to see Asif Kapadia’s inimitable style.

“When you're on the field, the life goes away, the problems go away, everything goes away!”

Project Grizzly - available as of 28 June 2020

Insanity, ingenuity and a mutual respect between two apex predators. One of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite documentary films, ‘Project Grizzly’ follows Canadian inventor, Troy Hurtubise and his quest to create a grizzly-proof suit. This isn’t a funny story about a man trying to fight a bear in a scrap metal iron-man suit, it’s a film about the determination of humans and the dreams that we strive towards. Troy Hurtubise was someone who was admirable in his strength of character, and perhaps, if he were born in a different time, a different place, things would have turned out differently. This film isn’t like Grizzly Man, Hurtubise wasn’t some flowery nature-lover who thinks he’s friends with bears. He knew about bears, studied them, and respected them above all. What this documentary doesn’t show is the tragic story after the filming of Hurtubise; continual failure, depression, debt and eventual death (likely a suicide). It’s a powerful example of a film made at a certain moment in time, a man’s dreams captured forever, but underlying this is the knowledge that everything isn’t going to be alright. Here is a dreamer who never stopped dreaming, but the reality of society dragged him down. When asked in the film what his greatest fear was, he responded, “Monotony, being bored. Being average”. He certainly wasn’t average. He was a modern-day Quixote.

“I’ve shit myself, I’ve pissed myself, and uh… I’m all done”


Country Music – expires 31 July 2020

The master of American long-form documentary series, Ken Burns is an absolute essential filmmaker to follow if you are interested in documentaries. Burns has such a distinct style and manner in which he presents all of his documentaries, that it has almost become a bit of a meme. The slow pans across old, faded photographs, Keith David narrating, and a romanticism of American culture. Burns always presents a compelling narrative, but his bias is pretty clear, despite his best efforts to appear relatively neutral. Country Music represents a solid effort by Burns, not quite as controversial as his ‘Jazz’ series, and extensively covering all the essential country artists of American culture. This is a long series, 8 episodes spanning 16 hours, but it’s a loving document that presents an emotional recollection of some of the best moments in American Music.

“Country Music has something for everybody and it’s inside the songs. It’s inside the lives of the characters”

Cave of Forgotten Dreams – expires 31 July 2020

Yes, it’s another Werner Herzog documentary. Too bad. He’s just that good. ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ is Werner Herzog’s journey into the Chauvet caves, and his almost masturbatory filming of the millennia-old cave-paintings. Herzog takes a back-seat in driving the narrative, instead, pushing for the images of the Chauvet artworks to speak for themselves. With bare-bones equipment, Herzog and his team use shifting lighting and shadows to recreate how the cave-welling artists would have perceived their own artworks (there is no natural light in the cave after all), and it’s in these beautiful, complex images where the film becomes transcendent. Herzog’s inquiry into the nature of human creativity is uncomprehensive, but strikes to the very core ideas of humanity. This is a wonderfully made film, about an astonishing subject.

“In a forbidden recess of the cave, there's a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We'll never know.”

Etched in Bone – expires 25 July 2020

To finish off this long list, I’ve included a recent Australian documentary about stolen bones from Aboriginal burial sites. ‘Etched in Bone’ is a really nicely made, restrained documentary on a subject many people may not be familiar with. It addresses a core divide between the preservation of traditional cultures and the thirst of scientific curiosity; the Western man’s flippant disrespect for the culture and traditions of the aboriginal people is hidden by the façade of a fetishistic curiosity to collect ‘artefacts’. Contrast the sterile, white, orderly cemeteries of Americans, to the raided cave burial sites of the Aboriginals. Only the hubristic Westerners can get away with such blatant disrespect. This has pretty much flown under the radar of the general public (as sadly, most documentaries on Aboriginal history do) and I’m happy to include it on this list, it’s a wonderful, original and touching documentary.

“To the dead and to their physical remains we owe the same obligation of respect that we do to people who are living. This obligation applies to all people, regardless of their ethnicity or culture, and it is more important than the claims of science.”

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