As a documentary filmmaker and enthusiast, I often find myself searching for the best place to watch my favorite films. In this blog post, I’ll share with you my personal recommendations for the best streaming services and websites to watch documentaries. Whether you’re a seasoned vet or just getting into docs, I hope this information will help you find some great new documentary movies to watch!
A Wealth of Education and Entertainment
It’s astonishing how many great documentaries are available to watch online. Many of them are entirely free, and you can watch them instantly on your phone or computer.
The availability of these documentaries makes it easy to find new films to watch whenever you want.
Watching documentaries is a great way to educate yourself about world issues, get inspired about the world around you, and learn more about your history.
Documentaries offer a combination of entertainment and education. They are based on true stories, telling compelling stories about real people and events.
Sometimes, the best documentary on a given topic can entirely change the way you look at it.
This marks a huge difference from the days when you had to physically go to a library and try to find a disc or VHS tape. Or tune into one of a handful of television stations that aired documentaries.
You May Need a VPN
Some of the services listed below are available only to people accessing the site from particular geographical zones. If keen to use these services, the workaround usually will be to log into a VPN (Virtual Private Network) account.
By connecting to the VPN, you can choose to access the Internet from a server based in the relevant country (for example, the United States or even put your IP in a specific city like New York) and you’ll be able to access the site.
I use Strong VPN, but there are many other VPN options available. Free and paid.
Where to Watch Documentaries For Free
Some of these sites are aggregators that contain links to third-party sites or embed videos from providers, such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Dailymotion.
When watching a documentary on one of these sites, you can sometimes watch the film for free. Other times, you will find that the videos are only available to watch if you sign up for a paid subscription service.
Or you may find that a documentary has been withdrawn from the source (for example, from YouTube) due to copyright restrictions.
Nevertheless, aggregators can be a useful way to discover free documentaries and get a sense of what’s out there.
Documentaries on PBS
The main PBS site has a ton of educational and news-related content available for instant free streaming online. Although there is no dedicated documentary section, you can dive into individual shows and formats that feature documentary-style content – for example, POV, Frontline, and NOVA.
The POV show has the most serious pure documentary stuff; it is a longstanding nonfiction television program that airs on PBS. Some of its episodes have been nominated for Emmy awards.
You can watch the trailers, and sometimes extended interviews. To watch the full films, you’ll need to either see them on one of PBS’s television channels or find them via one of the other streaming services below.
PBS Frontline dives into news and current affairs material, including internationally, while PBS American Experience delves into historical events and biographical stories. PBS Nature is another good option for documentaries; it explores the beauty, wonder, and complexity of the natural world.
With some of the PBS material, you can get access to more content by signing up for a PBS Passport for a monthly or one-time donation (you can choose the amount). Note that you will need a US address to do so.
Top Documentary Films
This aggregator site can be useful because it sorts the documentaries it displays by category.
For example, you can browse Philosophy, Politics, Biography, and so forth. There are viewer ratings and comments on the site that can steer you to the better stuff, and provide a (for the most part) intelligent discussion of the issues around the films.
The Top 100 list is also nice; for example, it steered me quickly to Richard Dawkins – The Greatest Show on Earth (2009), and Superhuman – Iceman, a 2015 Vice film about the famous cold-exposure advocate Wim Hof.
Which is perhaps the main point – aggregator sites like Top Documentary Films help you to stumble upon films that otherwise disappear into the media ether.
By right-clicking the video, or hovering over the bottom right corner, you can usually discover the course of the embed – and thereby discover new channels to subscribe to on YouTube, etc.
When you land on the main page of archive.org, it’s hard to know where to begin. The range of content on the site is overwhelming, so I recommend starting in the “Arts & Music” section and just diving in at first to familiarize yourself with the different ways the site works.
The next thing you can try is to simply run a search via the main search bar for ‘documentary.’ Be warned – this turns up 85,846 results when I looked!
The cool thing is that you can filter by year – 2021 has 5,245 results, for example. And also by media type: selecting movies takes the archive down to 52,458 results when I looked.
You can open up one of the films in a fresh tab (by right-clicking) and then scroll down to see the original source.
For example, https://archive.org/details/youtube-frCIYEyURV0 is a Deutsche Welle documentary broadcast in October 2021 about why we don’t trust science anymore, whose original source is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frCIYEyURV0 – but the latter link shows as private and cannot be seen, whereas the video is viewable at archive.org!
Discovering Raw Archive Footage
Needless to say, this is a fabulous way to discover new documentaries to watch! Also, to watch the raw archival footage – which is fascinating as a viewer, and use as a filmmaker!
As a documentary filmmaker, the site is an almost endless source of useful material and inspiration. The same is also true for writers, artists, and anyone else seeking to explore an extremely rich media resource.
For example, Ronald Reagan presented a ‘documentary’ about communism in 1962! With Alexander Kerensky introducing it, which really is a slice of history.
The acrhive.org page has time codes referencing specific parts of the video, which can be useful when these are lacking in, for example, the YouTube version of a film.
The site has been rebranded from its former home at freedocumentaries.org and now resides at https://watchdocumentaries.com/
In layout and functionality, it’s very similar to Top Documentary Films. An aggregator site. The difference is that although the films are user rated, there appears to be less discussion around the films on the site.
This site is one of the original aggregator sites for documentary films, having started up in 2009.
It does have advertising and popups on the site, which can be a minor annoyance before you get to the actual film you want to watch.
However, the site does have quite a lot of interaction: the top-ranking film (Louis Theroux: Most Hated Family in America) has more than 1,000 comments.
Films For Action
filmsforaction.org is interesting because of its focus on social impact and social change.
Indeed, the homepage pays immediate homage to the site’s mentor Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk known for bringing mindfulness to the West and establishing the Buddhist retreat called Plum Village in France.
The categorization of the site is clear and helpful, and its founders see themselves as a ‘Netflix for world changers.’
A good example of the kind of film featured on the site is Biomimicry, directed by Leila Connors.
It may be a blindingly obvious point, but there is an astonishing wealth of documentary material on YouTube. Like archive.org, above, YouTube has tons of amazing documentaries and films on various topics.
In the Explore tab, there is no specific main category for documentary, but there is a Learning category that has factual stuff, though mostly bite-sized.
The trick is to stay focused, and zero in on the stuff you intended to watch, rather than the zillions of suggestions youTube will throw at you! It can be helpful to use an app like annotate.tv to get the transcripts of YouTube content, especially if using it for professional purposes.
Mostly, you’ll need to use search terms such as ‘documentary’, ‘BBC documentary’, ‘ARTE documentary, ‘full documentary’, and so on to discover the films and the channels. For example, the Free Documentary channel has a stack of full-length films available.
YouTube offers a Premium service that costs around $10 per month. Personally, I find this worth it because you can get access to the entire YouTube catalog plus the YouTube Music service that I use constantly while working.
Vimeo is a great place for arthouse and independent cinema of all kinds. It stands out by the quality of the filmmaking, therefore is one of my first stops especially when I am looking for excellent documentary short films.
Good places to start are Vimeo’s ‘Staff Picks’ which show some of the very best content on the platform. I often go here for inspiration, new techniques, and creative filmmaking ideas. There are some truly wonderful animations there.
After that, check out the Categories page, where you will find Documentary, Narrative, and Animation, among others.
The Documentary category, for example, currently features the excellent film, Walt
There is a lot to in terms of mood, pacing, composition, cinematography….and just plain life, from these films.
A great source of documentaries and discussion around the themes that run through many of them.
A good place to start is the main subreddit https://www.reddit.com/r/Documentaries/ which, right now, has an active thread running about a film just out – ‘Putin’s People‘ – made by a YouTuber and seemingly based on the Catherine Belton book of the same name.
The Reddit community is quite acerbic, as anyone hanging around there for more than 10 minutes will understand. But that has the advantage of some sharp debate and acts as a kind of filter to keep out rubbish – which generally will be pounced on and mocked rapidly.
National Film Board of Canada
Canada is known in the documentary filmmaking community for making excellent films and having strong documentary film festivals – including Hot Docs. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the national film board’s site is a great source of excellent documentary content.
For example, The Whale and the Raven (2019).
The only downside is that if based outside Canada, you’ll need to use a VPN to watch it.
Paid Streaming Services
There are a number of paid streaming services that offer documentary content. Including the giants like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. These services generally offer access for a single month, at a typical cost of $8 per month or more.
Some services offer special deals, such as for the first month being free. These services are worth considering if you want to explore new documentaries, but are looking for a better deal on recurring costs.
The main issue with the big streaming services as far as I am concerned is that they tend to feature only entertainment-angled films, aiming for a populist audience. Therefore you will rarely find niche films or documentaries that investigate weightier subjects, like politics, social issues, or cultural, environmental, or scientific issues.
Netflix and Amazon Prime Video
Many people these days have subscriptions to one or several streaming services. Most of those people will have a Netflix and Amazon Prime subscription among them.
Both of these streaming services are more than just places for streaming, of course. They are producers in their own right.
As you might expect, they cater more to mainstream entertainment than arthouse, with lots of comedy, action, and drama. Binge-watching has become a thing, of course. Therefore, typical docuseries offerings include things like Tiger King, Wild Wild Country, and American Murder.
You will also find some of the David Attenborough wildlife series, including A Life On Our Planet. For Planet Earth, you’ll need to use the BBC iPlayer service – use a VPN if outside the UK, but keep in mind that if based in the UK you will need to have a TV license to remain on the right side of the law.
Hidden Category Codes
A great tip to zero in on the films you might enjoy is to use the ‘hidden category codes. Thus, for Netflix documentaries, you can use the codes below to navigate directly to documentary categories that interest you:
Biographical Documentaries (3652)
Crime Documentaries (9875)
Foreign Documentaries (5161)
Historical Documentaries (5349)
Military Documentaries (4006)
Sports Documentaries (180)
Music & Concert Documentaries (90361)
Travel & Adventure Documentaries (1159)
Political Documentaries (7018)
Religious Documentaries (10005)
Science & Nature Documentaries (2595)
Social & Cultural Documentaries (3675)
The way to do it is to enter this link in your browser: https://www.netflix.com/browse/genre/NUMBER and enter the relevant category number where it says ‘NUMBER’ above.
Doc Alliance Films
Based on a monthly or annual subscription, DAFilms works with seven of the top European film festivals and features hundreds of arthouse and independent films that you can’t see elsewhere.
They also feature interviews with the filmmakers, as DAFilms Conversations.
Hulu is a streaming service that offers full seasons of popular TV shows and hit movies alongside Hulu Originals. Available in both ad-supported and no ads versions, Hulu has thousands of shows and movies – including South Park and Hulu Originals such as Emmy Award-winning series The Handmaid’s Tale – from top networks including FOX, NBC, ABC, ESPN/Disney, FX, and USA Network.
Plus you can stream live TV & 50+ sports and news channels. New subscribers get a 1-week trial.
To stream Discovery content, you’ll need to sign up for one of their paid subscription plans. Discovery was initially known for their coverage of the natural world, but recently (in common with other channels like The History Channel) have been moving to reality-TV formats.
HBO is a major entertainment network, offering movies, TV series, documentaries, and specials that have won copious awards. In addition to films, HBO has 4 major TV channels. You can sign up for HBO NOW as an individual subscription or as part of a bundle for $15 per month, but HBO also offers HBO GO – a streaming service for mobile devices. HBO GO provides access to TV series such as Game of Thrones and documentaries like Beyoncé’s Life Is But a Dream.
HBO has some documentaries available to stream directly on its site for free: https://www.hbo.com/documentaries
There are a number of documentaries available to rent or buy, including for example Roadrunner – A Film About Anthony Bourdain.
It’s quite nice to have the Rotten Tomatoes ratings below the individual film listings, to help guide whether to invest.