11 Free Documentaries Available on YouTube


YouTube isn't just for copyright infringement -- here are 11 documentary films legally available on YouTube in their entirety. They're funded with ads, and are shown in roughly DVD (480p) quality. Be aware that some films move in and out of the free category, so if you're reading this in 2012 or beyond, some films may no longer be available. Check YouTube's Documentaries page and click "Free" for a list of current offerings.

1. Buena Vista Social Club

Wim Wenders follows Ry Cooder in Cuba, in the now-famous documentary that spawned a soundtrack everybody bought in 1997. Here's a snippet from the description:

The album won a Grammy, and in this refreshing documentary, Wim Wenders shows these exceptional musicians in their hometown, following them into their usual hang-outs -- the cafes, clubs and even living rooms -- as well as to concerts in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall, capturing their incredible vitality. "In Cuba, music flows like a river," according to Ry Cooder, who adds "Music is like a treasure hunt; you dig and dig and sometimes find something." Pursuing this metaphor, Wenders wanted to make a film that would "just float on this river ... not interfering with it, just drifting along." The result is a film full of vitality and positive energy, which is also an absolute delight to musical ears.

Watch it on YouTube (embedding is disabled). Here's the trailer:

2. The Eyes of Tammy Faye

With narration by RuPaul, this documentary follows Tammy Faye Bakker, who is well-known for her remarkable eyelash extensions and her televangelism with husband Jim Bakker. From the film's description:

Riding a tide of religious fundamentalism, the Bakkers reached their gaudy heights with the PTL Network and the spinoff Christian theme park Heritage USA. Then the roof caved in. Jim was forced to pay hush money to future Playboy centerfold model Jessica Hahn and then was submitted to rival Jerry Falwell's hostile take-over of the network. Soon Jim was in jail for fraud, and Tammy was at Betty Ford for addiction to prescription drugs. This film was screened at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival.

Watch it on YouTube (embedding is disabled). Here's the trailer:

3. OT: Our Town

Compton high school students put on a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, with remarkable results. From the film's description:

When it became obvious that the financially strapped school (which had recently canceled its football program) couldn't provide a budget for sets or costumes, the students did what money-conscious high-school theater departments have been doing for decades -- they staged Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a drama commonly performed without the use of sets or large props. But what would Wilder's allegorical story of life in a small turn-of-the-century Midwestern hamlet mean to kids in Compton? And would the inexperienced students and faculty be able to bring it off? OT: Our Town is a documentary which looks at Dominguez High's brave experiment and the people who struggled to make it happen.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

4. Koyaanisqatsi

Godfrey Reggio, Ron Fricke, and Philip Glass collaborated to make a stunning film that defies description. The film has no narration, almost no language (except brief titles at the beginning and end, plus credits), and no plot. And it's literally my favorite film of all time -- it changed the way I look at film, and every time I watch it I'm devastated. The only sad thing about this film being available on YouTube is that it's interrupted with ads -- perhaps the most ridiculous thing you could imagine for this kind of work. Oh well, it's free. From the film's description:

An art-house circuit sensation, this feature-length documentary is visually arresting and possesses a clear, pro-environmental political agenda. Without a story, dialogue, or characters, Koyaanisqatsi (1983) (the film's title is a Hopi word roughly translated into English as "life out of balance") is composed of nature imagery, manipulated in slow motion, double exposure or time lapse, juxtaposed with footage of humans' devastating environmental impact on the planet.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

5. Down from the Mountain

Remember O Brother, Where Art Thou? This is a documentary and concert film featuring the music from the film. Allison Krauss, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Ralph Stanley, and many more make this a concert film worth watching. From the film's description:

For their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, set in the American South during the 1930s, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen collaborated with musician, songwriter, and producer T-Bone Burnett to compile a score that reflected the rich variety of musical influences of the rural South during the Depression. Burnett brought together a veritable who's who of American roots music for the project, and while the film was a moderate success, the soundtrack album to O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a surprise hit, topping the country charts for several weeks and helping to open the ears of a new audience to the beauty and rough-hewn poetry of bluegrass, traditional country, rural blues, and gospel music. Shortly before the film's release, Burnett assembled many of the artists who appeared on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack for a special concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (the original home of the Grand Ole Opry) to benefit the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum; the evening was filmed, and Down From the Mountain documents this very special night of music that celebrates America's musical past as it points to the future.

Watch it on YouTube (embedding is disabled). I couldn't find a reliable trailer, so you'll have to settle for this clip from O Brother (the real singers here are Dan Tyminski, Harley Allen, and Pat Enright):

6. Man with a Movie Camera

This 1929 Russian silent film is sometimes seen as a precursor to Koyaanisqatsi, because it has no plot, actors, and so on -- it's purely visual, and it uses stylistic techniques (like fast edits and slow motion) that have become part of modern filmmaking. From the film's description:

Soviet director Dziga Vertov's experimental film grew out of his belief, shared by his editor, Elizaveta Svilova (who was also his wife), and his cinematographer, Mikhail Kaufman (also his brother), that the true goal of cinema should be to present life as it is lived. To that end, the filmmakers offer a day-in-the-life portrait of a city from dawn until dusk, though they actually shot their footage in several cities, including Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa. After an opening statement, there are no words in the film (neither voice-over nor titles), just dazzling imagery, kinetically edited - as a celebration of the modern city with a marked emphasis on its buildings and machinery.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

7. The Times of Harvey Milk

This 1983 documentary, we see the history of "The Mayor of Castro Street." If you've seen the biopic Milk, you'll recognize lots of this material. It's a rare film that has a
100% fresh rotating on Rotten Tomatoes.

On November 27, 1978, Dan White, a former city supervisor who was desperate to regain his post, entered City Hall with a gun and murdered both San Francisco's mayor, George Moscone, and Milk. At the trial, White's lawyer skillfully turned the jury's attention away from his client's public anti-gay statements to focus on White's spotless record and his extremely agitated mental state on the day of the murders. White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to a relatively brief jail term, sparking a demonstration and riot by gay supporters of the murdered men. The film considers Milk's accomplishments and his exceptional popularity; this is not an objective look at a man, but a celebration of a martyr. Winner of an Academy award for Best Documentary Feature, The Times of Harvey Milk was released while White was serving his sentence; he was paroled in 1984 and committed suicide the next year.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

8. The Atomic Cafe

Combining footage of Cold War "educational" films like Duck and Cover with narration, this documentary is grim, sometimes funny, and often bizarre. When I saw this on PBS while I was in high school, it blew my mind -- how could these propaganda films be so stupid? How had I never seen the devastation in Japan after the bombings? It's impressive and horrifying. From the film's description:

The Atomic Cafe is a sometimes hilarious, sometimes sobering collection of film clips taken from American propaganda films of the 1950s. The thrust of the production is to expose the misinformation (and downright lies) dispensed by the government concerning the atomic bomb. We are shown vignettes from such classic instructional films as Duck and Cover, wherein school children are assured that they will survive a nuclear attack simply by huddling together next to the schoolhouse wall. In another sequence, a pack of pigs are dressed in Army uniforms and left to die at "Ground Zero" during a nuclear test to see if human beings (who purportedly have the same skin consistency as pigs) could endure such an ordeal.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

9. Nanook Of The North

This 1922 proto-documentary is required viewing for students of film -- it's the first time we saw a real feature film that wasn't fiction. It's a bit slow by today's standards, but a landmark documentary nonetheless. From the film's description:

Filmmaker Robert Flaherty had lived among the Eskimos in Canada for many years as a prospector and explorer, and he had shot some footage of them on an informal basis before he decided to make a more formal record of their daily lives. Financing was provided by Revillion Freres, a French fur company with an outpost on the shores of Hudson Bay. Filming took place between August 1920, and August 1921, mostly on the Ungava Peninsula of Hudson Bay. Flaherty employed two recently developed Akeley gyroscope cameras which required minimum lubrication; this allowed him to tilt and pan for certain shots even in cold weather. He also set up equipment to develop and print his footage on location and show it in a makeshift theater to his subjects. Rather than simply record events as they happened, Flaherty staged scenes -- fishing, hunting, building an igloo -- to carry along his narrative. The film's tremendous success confirmed Flaherty's status as a first-rate storyteller and keen observer of man's fragile relationship with the harshest environmental conditions. (In a sadly appropriate footnote, Nanook, the subject of the film, died of starvation not long after the film's release.)

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

10. Life In A Day

This YouTube-sponsored documentary shows what happens when you ask people around the world to show you their lives. While it's not the most meaningful documentary around, it's touching at times, and often surprisingly well-photographed. From the fim's description:

Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) and producer Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator) team up to offer this candid snapshot of a single day on planet Earth. Compiled from over 80,000 YouTube submissions by contributors in 192 countries, Life in a Day presents a microcosmic view of our daily experiences as a global society. From the mundane to the profound, everything has its place as we spend 90 minutes gaining greater insight into the lives of people who may be more like us than we ever suspected, despite the fact that we're separated by incredible distances.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

11. The Day the Wave Came

This 30-minute documentary recounts the 2004 Tsunami, including graphic footage of the wave and interviews with survivors. From the film's description:

The magnitude and destruction of a Tsunami is hard to comprehend. This minute-by-minute account reveals the human face of the 2004 tragedy. A torrent of water sweeps through a street, destroying everything in its path. In the background, women are screaming. "I remember yelling 'we're all going to die, we're all going to die'", recalls one survivor. Hours earlier, meteorologist Smith Dharmasroja had desperately tried to get a warning out. When the wave struck Sri Lanka, Sulochana Perera attempted to rescue many drowning children, only to see her efforts dashed as the second bigger wave hit. This report reveals how events unfolded around the Indian Ocean: why no warnings were issued, survivors' stories and what the impact has been on their shattered lives. Includes remarkable pictures of the Tsunami.

Watch it on YouTube or watch the whole thing below (embedding is enabled for this one):

For 11-11-11, we'll be posting twenty-four '11 lists' throughout the day. Check back 11 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.