Documentaries are, often times, more interesting than any fictional tale Hollywood could come up with. When done well, documentaries provide an excellent narrative that, at their worst, are entertaining and, at their best, can literally save lives. There is a reason Reality TV is such a hit- we like seeing real people in real situations. Now, most Reality TV is staged BS, but documentaries are usually pretty legitimate. Filmmakers are able to capture the hearts and minds of audiences with a variety of true stories that are, oftentimes, stranger than fiction.
This is especially true with crime documentaries. Sometimes, a filmmaker will be able to capture a crime or a trial right as they’re happening. Other times, filmmakers revisit cold cases and offer up new evidence and ideas. Still other times, a documentary is made as a warning, to share an important story, in the hopes that similar situations won’t happen again. We have compiled a list of the Top 5 True-Crime Documentaries. We are not here to take sides or decide guilt or innocence in these cases (except in the case of the West Memphis 3…they definitely didn’t do it), we just wanted to feature some of the most interesting ‘real’ films that have been produced. Feel free to discuss these films in our comments section, but you owe it to yourself to check out any and all of True Crime Docs.
5) Making a Murderer (2015, Available for Streaming on Netflix)
As one of the more recent True-Crime Documentaries, Making a Murderer captured a nation with its story of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. This Netflix-produced, 10-part series focused on Avery, a man exonerated after spending almost 20 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Shortly after being released, Avery sued Manitowoc County and various individuals involved with his case. Before his suit could go before a judge, however, Avery was arrested again- this time for the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach.
Also arrested in connection with Halbach’s murder was Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey. The series focuses on evidence supporting both Avery and Dassey’s innocence, though questions have been raised about whether they actually are innocent. Making a Murderer is a fascinating take on our judicial system and, whether Avery and Dassey are guilty or innocent, how flawed our current system is. A new season of Making a Murderer is about to hit Netflix and, like its predecessor, it’s sure to raise more questions than answers.
4) Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Available via HBO, HBO Go or HBO Now Subscription)
Sometimes, a filmmaker begins a story and ends up telling an entirely different one. That’s what happened to filmmaker Andrew Jarecki. Originally, Jarecki was making a film about children entertainers in New York City. This was how he met David Friedman, a professional clown. For the first time ever, though, it was not the clown that was dangerous. While filming Friedman, Jarecki found out that his brother and father were convicted child molesters.
Arnold and Jesse Friedman were convicted in the 1980’s of child sexual abuse. Birthday clowns were no longer as interesting to Jarecki, as he began to shift the focus of his film to the rest of the Friedmans, using his own footage as well as archived footage from the Friedmans themselves. Capturing the Friedmans is a great example of following leads and not being afraid to shift focus if the story requires it. Jarecki never intended to make a true crime documentary, but he ended up making one of the most interesting documentaries of all time.
3) Beware the Slenderman (2016, Available via HBO, HBO Go or HBO Now Subscription)
Slenderman is a fictional (or is he?) urban legend, first appearing as a ‘creepypasta’ on a Reddit Thread. According to legend, the Slenderman is a faceless ghoul with tentacle-like arms and a pretty sharp suit. Recently, a film came out depicting the Slenderman. It wasn’t good. Or interesting. Or scary.
What was scary was the HBO documentary, ‘Beware the Slenderman,’ which told the story of two 12-year-old girls who lured their friend into the woods, before stabbing her over 19 times. This was done, allegedly, to appease the Slenderman. At least, that’s what the girls involved said. This documentary is as fascinating as it is horrifying. Slenderman is not real, but his effect on real people is, and this documentary is proof of that. The girl who was stabbed survived and the girls who did it are in a correctional facility, but how many more people have been influenced by the legend known only as the Slenderman?
2) Dear Zachary (2008, Available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime Video)
*Takes a deep breath* Okay. Dear Zachary is, perhaps, the most heart-wrenching documentary we have ever seen. There is not a happy ending. Nothing about the film is “happy.” It’s devastating. But it’s important to watch, just to see how flawed our justice system is.
While the events portrayed in Dear Zachary occurred in Canada, it’s not hard to imagine similar scenarios happening in the states. We don’t want to spoil anything in the film, because we implore you to watch it for yourself. But we will say that Dear Zachary is both a love letter to a son from his father, as well as a love letter from a friend to a brother. Writing any more about this film would do it a disservice because this is one of those films, and one of those situations, that words just cannot do justice. Just watch it and, once you have, come back and we can discuss. Just be prepared to have your heart ripped out of your chest. You will cry; of this, there is no doubt.
1) Paradise Lost, 1, 2 &3 (1996, 2000, 2011, Available via HBO, HBO Go or HBO Now Subscription)
Documentary filmmakers have the power to change and save lives. The Paradise Lost Films are proof of this. In 1996, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began to document the Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Three young boys were murdered and sexually mutilated as part of an alleged satanic ritual in West Memphis, Arkansas. Police and townspeople reacted quickly, and three more young boys were arrested. Their names were Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin.
Both Misskelley and Baldwin were lower functioning during their questioning, and Misskelley actually provided police with a confession. Echols had black hair and liked Metallica. For the residents and police in the most conservative Christian town of West Memphis, that was enough to put him away for 20 years.
The journeys of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin are documented through 3 films, as well as an additional film from famed-director Peter Jackson. The original 3 Paradise Lost Films are the most important though, as evidence and statements from those films are what ultimately led to the release of the “West Memphis 3,” in 2011. No, the three young men did not murder Christopher Byers, Michael Moore, and Steve Branch. Somebody did, though, and we still don’t know who it was.
The original Paradise Lost film brought quite a bit of media attention to the case, with celebrities like Johnny Depp offering their support for the 3. While Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were released from prison in 2011, they were made to offer an “Alford Plea,” which allowed them to pledge their innocence but still offer a guilty plea.
The lives of six boys were taken because of the murders at Robin Hood Hills. The lives of Byers, Moore, and Branch were taken by a ruthless, heartless murderer(s) and the lives of Echols, Misskelley, and Baldwin were taken by a judgmental community and an inept law enforcement agency. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky effectively gave the West Memphis 3 their lives’ back because, had it not been for their documentaries, their case would have never gotten the attention it needed to be reexamined. Some films entertain us, and that’s fine. But some films, like Paradise Lost, save lives.