Little-known documentaries worth watching

Three weeks ago, I posted an article about little-known but excellent movies worth watching. That time, I stuck to narrative (i.e. fictional) films. This time, I’m doing documentaries – including one by Ken Burns!

Four of the five got very short theatrical runs; the other went from festivals directly to television. Two are about women who need to sing. I selected only films for which I gave an A. Click a title to see where you can stream the films.

The Cave (2019)

This fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Syrian war left me shaken and disturbed. That’s appropriate. You can’t watch screaming, terrified children, cared for by hassled and exhausted adults, and not be changed – and it’s all real. In the besieged Syrian city of Eastern Al Ghouta, Dr. Amani Ballour does everything she can in an underground hospital while bombs and poison gas rain down from above. If this film has a flaw, it’s that it is just too much to bear. Read my full review.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

This is one of the best documentaries I saw last year. In 1980, three young men who didn’t know each other, all of them adopted, discovered that they were identical triplets. Filmmaker Tim Wardle created an original, deeply empathetic documentary about their lives, their brief celebrity, and the discovery that they and their adoptive parents were guinea pigs in a long-term, secret, nature/nurture experiment. Wardle breaks generally-accepted documentary rules to create a fresh way of telling his story. Read my full review.

Sonita (2015)

Sonita examines the dilemma of a teenage refugee from Afghanistan living in Iran (which is an enlightened society compared to the country of her birth). She wants to be a rapper, and has the talent and determination to succeed. But her mother wants to sell her to a potential husband back home in Afghanistan; the money from the sale will buy Sonita’s older brother a bride. A moving, suspenseful true story about one amazing person and the millions in plights much like hers. Read my full review.

Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015)

Janis Joplin’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. But in reality, it came out of the pain, joy, and despair and sexuality of a young woman brimming with so much emotion that you felt she might explode. If you’ve ever loved Janis Joplin’s work, this film will reignite that love. If you don’t understand what she was all about, it makes a great introduction to one of the best and most influential performers in popular music. Filmmaker Amy Berg put together a touching documentary that finds the right interviews and keeps the music front and center. Read my full review.

The Central Park Five (2012)

Ken Burns sets aside his usual historical style to examine a far more recent story of five young men convicted of a horrible crime that they did not commit. A white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. New York’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and considerable evidence of their innocence. Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got to where we are. This one shows us exactly where that still is. Read my full review.