“Documentaries have entered an unprecedented golden age, one that is only going to get better,” wrote leading film trade website Deadline in February 2019.
It’s not just that cameras have become better, cheaper, smaller and less invasive, or that people’s lives are more documented than ever before thanks to social media, it’s also that streaming has made documentaries more accessible to audiences – and studios are now paying record amounts for them.
Not long ago, South African documentary lovers needed to wait for Encounters or the Durban International Film Festival to get their annual fix, but now the world’s best documentaries are available to stream from the comfort of your couch, anytime.
Luckily for anyone who’s missed out on documentaries crossing over into the mainstream, Showmax has put together a helpful guide to their best international documentaries, which are all available to stream now.
This is the incredible story of how a plan to sell more burgers became a multi-million dollar fraud that eventually involved the mafia. At the time of writing, in April 2020, McMillion$ was the highest rated true-crime series of 2020 on Rotten Tomatoes. Watch now »
On the first day of college in New York in 1980, a young man who’d been adopted at birth discovered he had an identical twin. Then the boys learned there was a third. And then, after the fairytale reunion that made feel-good headlines across the world, the triplets started asking questions – and their quest to find out why they’d been split in the first place revealed an increasingly bizarre and sinister mystery.
The true story of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland and David Kellman has captivated audiences and critics alike. Newsday calls it “a riveting, stranger-than-fiction documentary that plays out like a mystery novel,” while Times (UK) says “it never loses sight of the three scarred subjects at the core of the tale, and of the sense of profound injustice inflicted on blameless children. Unmissable.”
Eighteen years after he was sentenced to life plus 30 years in jail, this true-crime investigation takes a fresh look into the case against Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
The four-part HBO docuseries from Oscar, Emmy and Bafta-nominated director Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil) follows on the success of the investigative journalism podcast Serial, which brought international attention to the trial and to Syed’s continued insistence that he did not kill Hae.
“As testament to a tragedy, Berg’s documentary was wrenching. As a quiet indictment of true crime and its ghastly razzmatazz, it was devastating,” saysthe UK’s Daily Telegraph.
This documentary was nominated for a 2019 Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program, and scored an 82% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Across five one-hour episodes, Star Trek’s Zachary Quinto explores the dramatic history of the eight planetary siblings in our solar system, as it unfolded over 4.5billion years. Using extensive computer-generated imagery and footage from space missions, including NASA’s Cassini–Huygens mission and the New Horizons probe, the series reveals the spectacular landscapes, apocalyptic weather systems and unbelievable science (on Saturn, it rains diamonds) of our neighbouring worlds.
“The cutting-edge visuals are worthy of a space movie, not least the cosmic round of ten-pin bowling at the dawn of the galaxy,” says the Times (UK), and the Guardian reviewer Rebecca Nicholson says, “The wonder of [the] arguments, which take in the staggering, incomprehensible vastness of time and space, provides the kind of television that made this particular viewer stop and say ‘whoa’ every few seconds.”
Starlust listed it among the eight Best Space Documentaries to Binge Watch in 2020, saying The Planets is “one of our favourite space documentaries of 2019 thanks to Brian’s ability to explain the most complex mechanism at work for planets to form and develop. The production and filmography are outstanding and the show has some of the best CGI we have ever seen in space documentaries. The BBC clearly went all-out budget-wise and it shows!”
Untouchable tracks the rise and fall of the disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, featuring interviews with former colleagues and accusers in the wake of the scandal that shook Hollywood and catapulted the #MeToo movement to a global phenomenon.
Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus calls it “a gut-wrenching look at horrific abuses of power,” while London Evening Standard writes, “More than a portrait of one monstrous man, it’s a polemic against the complicit silence that accompanied years of alleged sexual misconduct, abuse and bullying.”
The Independent writes, “Where Untouchable excels… is in capturing the complexities surrounding sexual assault”, and The Guardian says, “Almost every woman watching will understand. Some men will, too. If these films add to their number, maybe we can begin to change the world.”
Celebrated as one of the greatest R&B singers of all time, R. Kelly’s genre-defining career has been riddled with rumours of abuse, predatory behaviour, and paedophilia. In Surviving R. Kelly, for the first time ever, survivors and people from his inner circle come forward with new allegations about sexual, psychological, and physical abuse. First screened on M-Net in South Africa, the bombshell documentary series features over 50 interviews, including conversations with civil rights activist Tarana Burke, musicians John Legend and Sparkle, talk-show host and former DJ Wendy Williams, ex-wife Andrea Kelly, ex-girlfriend Kitti Jones, brothers Carey and Bruce Kelly, and many others.
Claim to fame: Surviving R. Kelly is a 2019 Emmy nominee for Outstanding Informational Series or Special and is currently the third highest ranked documentary on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best TV series of 2019 so far, sitting at number 29 with a 95% critics rating. The six-part series was also named Best Documentary Series or Special at both the Black Reel Awards and the Critics’ Choice Real TV Awards this year.
For a year, acclaimed British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay was embedded on the set of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, chronicling the creation of the show’s final season and delving deep into the mud and blood to reveal the tears and triumphs of bringing the fantasy world of Westeros to life in the very real studios, fields and car-parks of Northern Ireland. Made with unprecedented access, Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch is an up-close and personal report from the trenches of production, following the crew and the cast as they contend with extreme weather, punishing deadlines and an ever-excited fandom hungry for spoilers. Game of Thrones: The Last Watch was simultaneously released on both M-Net and Showmax in May 2019, just after the Season 8 finale.
Claim to fame: The Last Watch is a 2019 Emmy nominee for Best Music Composition: Documentary and has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Mashable went so far as to claim The Last Watch was “a better ending than the Game Of Thrones finale… substantially more emotional and satisfying… A really, really good documentary…”
Directed by Black Reel winner Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali tells the boxing great’s story in his own voice, painting a vivid picture of the man Sports Illustrated declared the greatest athlete of the 20th Century. All Ali’s fights are here, from The Thrilla In Manila against Joe Frazier to The Rumble In The Jungle against George Foreman – the world’s most-watched live television broadcast at the time – to his fight as a 38-year-old against his former sparring partner Larry Holmes, who wept after beating his idol on a technical knockout. But as thrilling as watching Ali float like a butterfly and sting like a bee is, the real joy of the documentary is listening to him talk: What’s My Name should be written up as not just a great sports documentary, but also a great comedy, with even more quick-witted verbal sparring contests than knockout punches. HBO’s two-part documentary on the three-time heavyweight champion of the world was released first on Showmax in June 2019, just a month after its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival.
Claim to fame: What’s My Name has a 94% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 8.5/10 rating on IMDB. As critic Richard Roeper wrote in The Chicago Sun-Times, “The greatness of What’s My Name is that if you’re young and you know very little of Muhammad Ali, this would be the perfect place to start learning about him — but if you remember Ali in his prime and you’re well-versed in his history, it’s still a must-see television event.”
And we didn’t even mention the African gems…
These are just the international documentaries on Showmax and this list doesn’t include internationally acclaimed, multi-award-winning African documentaries like How to Steal a Country, Liyana, Whispering Truth To Power and Everything Must Fall, so there’s never been a better time to get hooked on the true-life drama of documentaries on Showmax.