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Top 10 Most Hard to Watch Documentaries

VO: Joshua Karpati WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp

Script written by Nathan Sharp

These movies tackle some very tough subject matter. Whether it's Blackfish, Dear Zachary, or The Bridge, these documentaries will leave you shaken. WatchMojo counts down the top documentaries that are hard to watch.

Check out the voting page for this list and add your picks: https://www.WatchMojo.comsuggest/top+10+most+hard+to+watch+documentaries Special thanks to our user alexholmes619@gmail. for suggesting this idea!


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Script written by Nathan Sharp

Top 10 Most Hard to Watch Documentaries

Well, we suppose it did its job. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top Ten Most Hard to Watch Documentaries.

For this list, we’ll be looking at various documentaries that are extremely painful and difficult to watch, either through their challenging subject matter, horrific visuals, or emotional storytelling.

#10: “13th” (2016)

Not only is Netflix putting out some fantastic television, they also released one of the best documentaries in recent years. “13th” was directed by “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, and it tackles similar issues of race and oppression. “13th” is ironically named after the 13th amendment, as the documentary argues that slavery continued after the passing of the amendment in the form of convict leasing and disenfranchisement. It maintains that it continues to this day with the war on drugs and mass incarceration targeting people of color. It’s a horrifying look at America’s troubles with racism and offers a compelling argument that we need to do better to ensure future equality.

#9: “Zoo” (2007)

With a name like “Zoo,” you just know it’s going to be a difficult watch. And it is, but not in the way you may believe. The title is short for zoophile, the name for a person who practices bestiality. The film explores the taboo subject and includes the story of Kenneth Pinyan, a man who died after receiving anal sex from a horse. It’s strange, eerie, and fascinating, and it tries to challenge our views on this type of behavior and the people who partake in it. And while it treats its subjects with respect, the content matter may prove far too difficult for some to stomach.

#8: “Tarnation” (2003)

“Tarnation” is certainly a unique documentary. It chronicles the lives of Jonathan Caouette and his mentally-ill mother, and its story is told through 20 years’ worth of film footage, answering machine messages, and video diaries which were filmed and collected throughout Caouette’s upbringing. It’s one of the most original yet heartbreaking documentaries ever made, and its subject matter regarding mental illness and mother-son love is both extremely challenging to watch and deeply touching. It makes for a unique viewing experience, but its disturbing content will leave you breathless and emotional.

#7: “Titicut Follies” (1967)

Hospitals have come a long way since the 1960s. “Titicut Follies” is a brutally depressing look at the inmates of Massachusetts’ Bridgewater State Hospital, a hospital for the criminally insane. The documentary harrowingly depicts the hospital’s patients living in squalor and facing harassment by the staff. It was so controversial that it was banned from the public after a Massachusetts Superior Court judge claimed that it violated the patients’ privacy rights. However, the filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, believes that it was banned to protect the reputation of the state. When it was finally made available in the early 90s, an amendment was added, stating that quality-of-life had improved at the hospital since the documentary was filmed.

#6: “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father” (2008)

This documentary began after Kurt Kuenne’s friend, Andrew Bagby, was murdered by his partner, Shirley Turner. After murdering Bagby, Turner announced that she was pregnant. The documentary centers around interviews with Andrew’s friends and family members, and was meant to serve as a scrapbook for his son Zachary. However, the documentary soon veers into true crime territory and becomes a scathing indictment of the Canadian justice system, complete with a harrowing outcome which will leave you emotionally distraught. The film allows us to shake our heads in outrage and blot our eyes in equal measure, and it serves as both a shocking family drama and a beautiful tribute to a great man.

#5: “Blackfish” (2013)

There certainly have been many difficult and challenging documentaries surrounding sea life. 2009’s “The Cove” was a mesmerizing documentary about dolphin hunting, and 2013’s “Blackfish” concerns the practice of keeping killer whales captive as entertainment. It unflinchingly depicts the disgusting treatment of these whales. To be fair, many people in the industry have denied the film’s authenticity, claiming that it was exploitative and sensationalized for drama. Regardless, the film was a success, as it helped raise awareness and resulted in many changes. These include a drop in SeaWorld’s revenue and the passing of California’s Orca Welfare and Safety Act, which will help to phase out captivity of killer whales.

#4: “Capturing the Friedmans” (2003)

Andrew Jarecki has made a name for himself in recent years with his stellar HBO documentary “The Jinx,” but in 2003, he released another impressive piece of work called “Capturing the Friedmans.” This documentary details the lives of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, a father and son who allegedly molested children. Jarecki raises some doubts regarding the validity of their guilt and the possibility of police coercion before leaving us without any concrete answers. It’s a difficult movie not only due to the disgusting charges, but also because it shows a possibly manipulative law enforcement that may be more concerned with a guilty plea than uncovering the truth.

#3: “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996)

Following in a similar vein, “Paradise Lost” follows the trials of the West Memphis Three, teenagers who were accused of murdering three young boys. These teenagers lived in a fiercely religious community, the residents of which believed that the murders were part of a Satanic ritual. The movie then highlights the biases that the community has towards the West Memphis Three. Like “Capturing the Friedmans,” it tells a difficult story about lurid subject matter while raising tantalizing questions regarding the subjects’ innocence. They were all sentenced to life, although they were released in 2011 under a plea which sees defendants personally adhere to their innocence while acknowledging evidence is against them.

#2: “The Bridge” (2006)

Suicide always has and always will be a very heavy subject, and “The Bridge” is a fantastic look into the minds of painfully troubled individuals. And it makes for supremely uncomfortable and taxing viewing. Inspired by a New Yorker article, the filmmakers filmed for thousands of hours at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, capturing 23 suicides on camera. They also filmed over one hundred hours of interviews with the deceased’s family members to get an idea of the stories behind the suicides. Whether you view the movie as well-intentioned or voyeuristic, there’s no denying that the footage it captures and the stories it tells are hauntingly tragic and painfully real.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Jesus Camp” (2006)

“The Imposter” (2012)

“Waltz with Bashir” (2008)

#1: “The Act of Killing” (2012)

“The Act of Killing,” and its companion piece “The Look of Silence” are some of the most heartbreaking and morose viewing experiences a person could have. The film recounts, through present day interviews and artful re-enactments with the real perpetrators, the mass killings which plagued Indonesia from 1965 to 1966. Also known as the Indonesian genocide, this massacre primarily targeted Communist sympathizers and left over one million people dead. It makes for horrendous viewing, and it offers us a glimpse into the minds of mass murderers, particularly that of Anwar Congo. And it is not a safe or comforting place to be.

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