By Stephen Aspeling13 July 2023
7 documentaries about the secret lives of people you’ll probably never meet
Documentaries open people’s hearts and minds. This is why they’re so important in shaping our attitudes and creating awareness about issues affecting us as individuals or as a collective. While they range from fly-on-the-wall depictions of reality to celebrity profiles or fictionalised recreations, these films attempt to encapsulate a message or shed light on what’s going on around us.
Whoever you are, these typically real stories capture the human experience or the natural world in a way that matters. Living through the lives of people we may never meet broadens our knowledge and our understanding of what it means to be alive on this lonely planet. Here are 7 documentaries waiting to immerse you in the secret lives of some of the most interesting people you’ll probably never meet.
Several years ago, a shocking news story emerged from Nigeria that captured the world’s attention. Almost 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from Chibok by militant terrorist group Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden”. The incident led to campaigns such as #BringBackOurGirls, prompting many global citizens to get behind attempts to rescue the girls from captivity. Stolen Daughters: Kidnapped by Boko Haram tracks the girls, many of whom were released after the group reached a deal with the government, as they return to their lives and communities.
As you’d expect, this documentary chronicles the harrowing and traumatic stories that still haunt them today. Whether forced to convert to Islam, marry Boko Haram members or witness the murder of loved ones – for many, the list of atrocities include rape and torture. This powerful, moving and vivid documentary speaks to restorative justice, the resilience of the human spirit and humanity’s will to survive the darkest days of our lives.
While Marilyn Monroe’s journey was tragically cut short, it’s curious to see how the Hollywood star’s life could have turned out through the biopic documentary, Jane Fonda in Five Acts. While the film stars are a few years apart in age, they both experienced the embers of Old Hollywood in their film careers, sculpted into sex symbols and defined by the men around them.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts explores the life and career of the iconic actress and activist. Guided by Fonda herself in a series of intimate interviews, this documentary chronicles her difficult childhood, family dysfunction, overnight success, her bold political activism and return to Hollywood in the 80s. Through archive footage, film clips and photographs, this biopic crafts a rich and retrospective tapestry, given further depth from both insight and hindsight.
Afghanistan has been an arid battlefield over the last few decades, but it seems personal freedom remains a distant mirage. This is abundantly clear in the heartbreaking documentary Love Crimes of Kabul, which explores the stories of women awaiting trial at a prison for moral crimes.
Imprisoned because of premarital relations, becoming overly intimate before marriage or for trying to flee their home rather than face strict curfews, there seem to be any number of reasons women can be dishonoured and incarcerated. Exploring a few of these intimate stories, Love Crimes of Kabul interviews and journeys with these captives and their families, giving a fascinating window into another culture as these young women discover the limitations of the law and the very real implications of their dalliances within such an authoritarian and conservative society.
Election campaigns are won with hard cash and T-shirts in Kenya, considered to be one of the most corrupt nations in the world, a democracy that is still divided along tribal lines. Set against the backdrop of a complex history, this is Boniface Mwangi’s story, a CNN photographer who decided to stand up against the brutality of pre-election violence, rampant injustice and government apathy.
This unpredictable documentary captures the fire of a true patriot and family man who wants a better future for his children. From the overarching corruption of the system to the popularity contest that is elections, Mwangi appeals to the Kenyan government and people to elect on principle rather than pay days. A character portrait of a charming and fearless man, this is a brave, eye-opening and inspiring documentary account of altruism and speaking truth to power.
The global population recently surpassed 8 billion. There have never been so many people on Earth and this is having a direct bearing on our natural world. While rapid population growth is a multifaceted challenge to space and resources, the human and wildlife conflict has now reached crisis levels along the Western Corridor of the Serengeti in Africa. Taken from the perspective of a conservation ranger, this beautifully photographed documentary unpacks the complexities of this violent stand-off as rural communities try to survive off the land.
Whether protecting elephants from frustrated human attacks or deterring wildlife from causing chaos in communal areas, it seems the situation is fraught with emotion, hardship and challenges. The Edge of Existence gets an on-the-ground eye-witness view of the situation as clarity and insights from poachers, rangers and special units add nuance.
We’re living in a digital age where we’ve never been so connected and alone. This heartbreaking irony speaks to the infiltration of social media and the rise of a class known as influencers. While not famous in the traditional sense of the word, influencers have amassed huge followings, attracting lucrative sponsorship deals from brands in exchange for product placement views and likes.
Fake Famous tracks a social media experiment, where journalist and filmmaker Nick Bilton attempts to get three would-be influencers famous. From casting his trio to finding the boundaries of the experiment, Fake Famous takes many twists and turns as the documentary explores the concept of social media fame and unpacks some of the behind-the-scenes circus illusion of what it takes to be fake famous.
Adorning yourself in a glitzy costume, makeup and wig doesn’t suddenly make you a drag queen. It’s a much bigger commitment, an art form, an identity turned lifestyle that takes time to adopt – even longer to perfect. Set in New York, Wig is a documentary that immerses itself in the world of drag queens. A colourful and vivid film composed of all that sparkles, from personalities to outfits, Wig weaves together a kaleidoscope of commentary, photographs and video footage.
While it features Ru Paul, the story is narrated by a host of drag queens from full-fledged representatives to founders of Wigstock. Rewinding to the 80s and peeling away the layers of what it takes to be a drag queen and queer, Wig is a showcase of the personalities and performances that shape the drag identity and community.
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