Ideas

25 Documentaries That Will Wreck You Emotionally

You may need a truckload of tissues handy before you watch these.

PBS

If you’re looking for a carefree night of watching a movie at home with some popcorn — this isn’t the list for you. Documentaries have a way of affecting us in much deeper ways than fictional films often can, especially the ones that handle difficult subject matter.

We’ve picked out 25 of the most devastating documentaries ever made, just in case you were looking for an excuse to weep. Some of these movies do offer hope in the end, while others are simply bleak from start to finish.

Either way, you’re virtually guaranteed to at least tear up — or, in some cases, ugly cry — from the films on this list. We’re presenting these films in alphabetical order, rather than ranking them, because the emotion you’ll feel will depend on how the subject matter hits you.

Grab the tissues, and don’t say we didn’t warn you!

‘The Act Of Killing’ (2012)


This Oscar-nominated documentary is tough to sum up and one of the most challenging movies you’ll ever see. Director Joshua Oppenheimer takes his cameras to Indonesia and asks former members of the country’s brutal death squads to dramatically reenact some of their mass killings 40 years after they happened. At first, the men take it as an honor — since the country has treated them as heroes for years — but as they get deeper into the reenactments, their suppressed memories of those atrocities start coming to the surface, leading to some indescribable moments.

“The Act of Killing” will stick with you long after it’s over and you’ll probably never see another movie quite like it.

‘Boy Interrupted’ (2009)


Documentaries don’t get much more personal than this one. “Boy Interrupted” is about a bright boy named Evan Perry who killed himself after suffering from bipolar disorder. What makes this so shattering to watch is that it was directed by Evan’s mother, Dana Perry, who is a filmmaker and therefore had an endless amount of home-video footage of her son during his short life. There are few movies that deal with mental illness, and its far-reaching effects on an entire family, that will haunt you like this one.

‘The Bridge’ (2006)


Many of the films on this list were universally celebrated by critics but “The Bridge” sharply divided them, proving to be one of the most controversial documentaries in recent history. It focuses on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge as a popular place for people to commit suicide, and director Eric Steel’s crew captured 23 actual suicides on camera during a single year of filming. Steel then got to know the victims by talking to their families and friends about possible warning signs, showing how seriously threats of suicide need to be taken.

“The Bridge” is an unshakable watch that shows how suicide can often be prevented but also how suddenly it actually happens once someone has made up their mind to leap.

‘Brother’s Keeper’ (1992)


True-crime documentaries don’t always pack a huge emotional punch but this 1992 classic will devastate you with its tenderness. “Brother’s Keeper” looks at the lives of four brothers who live together in a cramped home in a rural, New York community until their simple lives are broken by the death of one brother and the arrest of another for his killing. The emotions in this film are extremely complex and make you feel for everyone involved, testing your beliefs in issues like the justice system, community, family obligations, media fairness and whether killing can ever be considered acceptable.

This one is far from a simple whodunit and will leave you in tears as you try to put yourself into the shoes of the Ward brothers.

‘Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children’ (2007)


If you’re looking for a depressing night at the movies, this BBC documentary from 2007 will completely wreck you. As its title suggests, this film shows the living conditions of children with disabilities who were abandoned to live in a Bulgarian orphanage, where the conditions are beyond deplorable. The word “shocking” would be a complete understatement in describing the footage shot by director Kate Blewett for this film. If you can handle it, “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children” may inspire you to become an advocate for society’s most vulnerable population.

This movie sent ripples across Europe after it aired, thankfully leading to some sweeping reforms for the lives of children under the Bulgarian government’s care.

‘Children Underground’ (2001)


Similar to “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children,” this Oscar-nominated film takes an unflinching look at the lives of kids living in a terrible situation that can be blamed on a failure of society. This movie follows homeless kids in Romania, giving us a graphic picture of how they spend their lives, without any narration or other storytelling filters that could shape your experience as a viewer. “Children Underground” was called “almost unbearably sad” by New York Magazine and there’s really no better way to describe it, although you are left with some glimmers of hope once it reaches its conclusion.

Just be sure to have the tissues ready when you turn it on.

‘The Cove’ (2009)


Animal lovers won’t find many movies more distressing or heartbreaking than “The Cove.” This documentary using hidden camera footage to reveal the inhumane capture and brutal slaughter of countless dolphins in Japan for various commercial purposes. The film also gets into the health risks this practice has on humans, but you’ll probably feel so numb by the time it gets to that part that it will feel like an afterthought. The video captured for this film is graphic and distressing but brings to light a practice that needed to be exposed.

“The Cove” won an Oscar and is easily as emotionally affecting as any movie to win the coveted prize for best documentary feature.

‘Darwin’s Nightmare’ (2004)


Here’s another film that will wreck animal lovers and champions of human rights alike. “Darwin’s Nightmare” looks at how a simple change to the ecosystem in Tanzania has devastated the country’s human and animal populations to the benefit of commerce and a small number of wealthy Europeans. Few movies show the real price that unchecked capitalism and globalization can take on a community like this one.

You’ll be outraged and devastated by watching “Darwin’s Nightmare.” This is brave and eye-opening filmmaking at its finest.

‘Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father’ (2008)


Full disclosure: I consider “Dear Zachary” to be the single saddest movie I’ve ever seen — and I’m clearly not alone, judging by a simple search for comments about this heartbreaking documentary online. Extremely personal and surprising, this true-crime story was taken on by filmmaker Kurt Kuenne after the murder of his lifelong friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby. What Kuenne discovers after probing into Bagby’s death and interviewing dozens of the people who knew him best can only be described as shattering.

“Dear Zachary” is much more effective if you go into it knowing as little as possible but, take it from me, is just as punishing on a second watch when you know all of its secrets.

‘Earthlings’ (2005)


One of the most unflinching documentaries ever made, in a review of “Earthlings,” a member of PETA once wrote, “It’s difficult to imagine any human being watching this film and continuing to eat meat.”

This one looks into how our world dominates and brutalizes animals in the name of commerce. This film takes an unfiltered look at how animals are inhumanely treated and killed for industries like food production, pet breeding, entertainment and clothing manufacturing.

Like the other movies involving animals on this list, “Earthlings” is extremely graphic and hard to watch, but it is currently the highest-rated documentary on IMDb, so it has clearly resonated with nearly everyone who’s watched it.

‘4 Little Girls’ (1997)


The Civil Rights era was full of painful stories that can elicit tears and anger in equal measure and the one told by director Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls” is easily one of the most heartbreaking. It uses archival footage and new interviews to examine the 1963 bombing of a church in Alabama that killed four girls and led to an uprising in America’s black community.

The Chicago Reader called this film “profoundly affecting” and we’re betting you will too, especially when you realize how poignant it remains more than 20 years after its release — and more than 50 years after the murder of the girls at its center.

‘Grizzly Man’ (2005)


Director Werner Herzog is well known for making eye-opening documentaries and 2005’s “Grizzly Man” might be his most emotional experience. This movie dives deep into the work of Timothy Treadwell, an activist who devoted his life to studying and protecting grizzly bears. The obsession cost him his life when he was killed by a bear while in the field making a film about the creatures he loved so dearly. “Grizzly Man” lets you get an intimate look at Treadwell and the mistakes that led to his death. Herzog is an expert at gently leading you into a story that will absolutely devastate you.

‘Kingdom Of Us’ (2017)


Netflix has put out a huge number of documentaries in recent years, and this might be the company’s most affecting one yet. “Kingdom of Us” isn’t a sterile, true-crime mystery or a tale of justice gone wrong, it’s a naked look at how a single act can totally devastate a family. This film looks at how a woman and her seven kids pick up the pieces after her husband takes his own life.

It’s a devastating portrait of the effects of suicide and the loss of a parent and spouse. Director Lucy Cohen spent three years making “Kingdom of Us” and it’ll take even longer than that for you to get over it.

‘Lake Of Fire’ (2006)


This one is nearly impossible to watch at times but could bring tears to the eyes of a marble statue. “Lake of Fire” takes an in-depth look at the issue of abortion in the United States, not coming down in favor of either side of the debate and offering plenty for people on each side to feel ashamed of and bolstered by. Director Tony Kaye juxtaposes graphic footage of legal abortion procedures and the aftermath of them with equally graphic footage of doctors who’ve been murdered by anti-abortion extremists and the awful results of illegal abortions that some women have been forced to undergo.

Nobody wins in this film, as is often the way the most important debates go, but it’s as stark and heartbreaking as any you’ll ever see.

‘Leaving Neverland’ (2019)


This one strikes right at the core of why child abuse, especially sexual abuse, is such a devastating crime. This somewhat controversial film spends four hours diving deep into the stories of two men who say they were abused by music icon Michael Jackson for years during their childhoods. “Leaving Neverland” can be excruciating to watch, especially as the two men, who now have families of their own, recount what Jackson did to them in graphic detail.

Perhaps the most shocking part of this HBO documentary is how it implicates the boys’ parents, showing them as complicit in Jackson’s abuse of their sons even when the signs were obvious that something was amiss. Be prepared for plenty of tears during the second half of the film.

‘Life According To Sam’ (2013)


Sweet children with rare, incurable diseases are tried and true subjects for a heartbreaking documentary, but “Life According to Sam” is actually one of the more inspirational entries on our list. The film is about a boy’s battle with progeria, a condition that causes premature aging, and the efforts his parents take to help him beat it. This one is full of life and personality, much like Sam himself, but the devastating effects the disease has on his body and the complete unfairness of the entire situation make it a sad watch.

Even if you spend the whole movie crying, you’ll probably agree it was worth it to have gotten to know this amazing boy.

‘My Flesh And Blood’ (2003)


Think of “My Flesh and Blood” as the anti-“Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children.” This touching documentary follows the life of Susan Tom, a woman who adopted 11 kids, all of whom have physical disabilities or terminal illnesses. The life Tom has chosen is immensely challenging and full of struggles that are well documented in the movie — but it also seems to be extremely rewarding. “My Flesh and Blood” is a beautiful love letter to adoption, sacrifice and family. If you have a single empathetic bone in your body, there’s no way this one won’t bring tears to your eyes.

‘Night And Fog’ (1956)


The oldest and shortest film on our list, “Night and Fog” gave the world one of its first true glimpses into the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s only 32 minutes long, but that’s more than enough time to make you cry at the shocking sights it reveals.

“Night and Fog” shows how dehumanized the millions of victims imprisoned in Nazi Germany’s death camps were by showing graphic footage that’s all in stark black and white. As a subject in general, the Holocaust is about as sobering as it gets and this one is arguably the best of all the documentaries about the atrocities of that period.

‘Radio Bikini’ (1987)


Is this one a bit manipulative? Sure, but it’s only in service of packing one hell of an emotional punch with a stunning reveal in its final moments. “Radio Bikini,” which aired as an early episode of PBS’s landmark series, “American Experience,” looks into America’s early testing of nuclear bombs on Bikini Atoll, a beautiful island located between Hawaii and Australia. The island itself was inhabited by an entire community and culture, with the people being forced to move away in order for the tests to be undertaken on their home.

The American soldiers who witnessed the tests in person paid a heavy price for not knowing that they were in danger simply due to where they were standing when the bombs went off. There’s plenty of sadness and disbelief to go around in this hour-long film.

‘Shoah’ (1985)


Legendary critic Gene Siskel called “Shoah,” “the greatest use of film in motion picture history.” That’s extremely high praise from a guy who was notoriously picky when it came to hyperbole. I can attest to it being one of the most unforgettable and impressive films you’ll ever see — as long as you aren’t intimidated by its length and subject matter.

This documentary clocks in at more than 9 hours and it covers the Holocaust in a way that makes the atrocities an emotional and intimate subject by letting you hear the stories right from the mouths of survivors, witnesses and, in some of the film’s most intense sequences, former Nazis themselves.

“Shoah” will certainly break you down, not because it forces you to see graphic footage of murder and abuse but because it shows you how vivid the pain of victims still is 40 years after the fact. This is one of those rare movies that should be required viewing.

‘Sicko’ (2007)


Director Michael Moore’s documentaries usually have plenty of laughs in them to go along with his crushing observations about modern American life — but “Sicko” could be his most emotionally affecting film. He sets his crosshairs on the failings of the American healthcare system, especially when it’s compared to the government-funded systems used by other countries.

Regardless of where you come down on the debate over this issue, the people Moore interviews, who’ve been left without adequate healthcare, will undoubtedly remind you of people you know. This film can bring you to tears simply out of frustration and empathy.

‘Silverlake Life: The View From Here’ (1993)


This is another documentary that could be described as almost too sad, if that is a phrase that can ever be used when talking about effective filmmaking. An early entry in the long line of heartbreaking cinema that looks at the untold devastation caused by AIDS in the gay community, “Silverlake Life” offers an intimate look into the final months of Tom Joslin and Mark Massi, a couple who battled the disease together.

The toll taken on Tom and Mark is shown in graphic detail and is a painful reminder of a fight that ended far too many lives in a short span of decades.

‘The Suicide Tourist’ (2007)


The subject of assisted suicide has been at the center of several powerful documentaries that are guaranteed to make you cry but this one might be the most heartbreaking of them all. “The Suicide Tourist” is an entry into PBS’s seminal series, “Frontline,” and it follows an American named Craig Ewert, who traveled all the way to Switzerland to legally end his own life. Ewert was battling ALS and, as you can imagine, this hour-long film goes into the extremely difficult decision he made and how it was taken by the people who loved him.

“The Suicide Tourist” is not an easy watch in any way, but it’s more comforting than some of the others on this list since Ewert gets to have some control over what happens to him.

‘We Were Here’ (2011)


While “Silverlake Life” is an emotional look at just one couple’s struggle with AIDS, 2011’s “We Were Here” is an equally heartbreaking examination of the effect the disease had on an entire community. This film takes a macro look at how an entire generation of gay people were killed by AIDS in the 1980s, while much of America ignored what was happening to them.

Some of “We Were Here” is inspiring, as it shows what happens when a group of people comes together and battles a terrifying foe together, but there’s plenty in this film that will wreck you to your core.

‘Who Killed Adam Mann?’ (1991)

Another film from PBS’s “Frontline” that will completely devastate you is 1991’s “Who Killed Adam Mann?” This celebrated entry into that series looks into the brutal death of 5-year-old Adam Mann, who was beaten to death by his parents for eating a piece of cake.

So, this one is obviously not a murder mystery, but the question in the title becomes relevant when you discover that Adam’s parents had been beating him and his brothers for years, right under the noses of New York City’s child welfare officials. You’d have to be made of stone to not cry tears of sadness and rage after watching this hour-long documentary.

You can see the trailer below from Vimeo.

https://vimeo.com/75877498