If you have already delved into every documentary available on other streaming platforms, do not fear, because YouTube offers plenty of moving, tense, and interesting documentaries. YouTube ended 2023 with millions of premium subscribers who are able to buy or rent a wide range of amazing movies and TV shows. But for those who haven’t subscribed, you can still stream content for free, as YouTube is constantly keeping us updated with interesting and engaging content.
Updated Jan. 12, 2024: YouTube is always adding new documentaries for free, so we’ve updated this article to reflect some of the best available and to maintain the consistency and excellence we always strive for.
For documentary lovers who enjoy exploring real-life stories, unraveling a compelling true mystery, or even being educated on new and interesting discoveries, these are some of the best documentary movies you can watch for free on YouTube.
Some of the documentaries featured here may depict mature or upsetting content. Viewer discretion is advised.
13 All Is Self (2019)
Proposing that the chaos in our society is a representation of the chaos in our own minds, All Is Self examines how our society is built on the idea that we separate ourselves from nature, allowing us to harm the environment and others without feeling like we are destroying ourselves. We may feel detached from the rest of the world at times, but in this documentary we are shown how spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for centuries, and how modern science has begun to understand this.
All Is Self Is Self-Reflective
The documentary makes us aware of the idea of “oneness,” and how these spiritual traditions have led to the belief that all beings are our family — that we are one with nature, and that all is self. Who knew that enlightenment would be free on YouTube? This documentary will feel right at home for those in need of unique worldviews or different ways of thinking.
12 Josef Fritzl’s Horrifying Crime (2022)
Josef Fritzl’s Horrifying Crime is an emotionally painful but perfectly edited documentary about how a father’s horrific actions tore a family apart. In 2008, the disturbing case of a woman who had been imprisoned in a basement for 24 years came to light. Elizabeth Fritzl was held captive, beaten, and sexually assaulted by her own father, Josef, and gave birth to seven of his children while she was imprisoned.
A Comprehensive Examination of the Crime
The documentary explores a real-life monster, explaining how these terrible actions affected the family and how he managed to conceal his evil actions. This is primarily handled via the inclusion of interviews and legal documentation by journalists and lawyers who followed the Josef Fritzl case. It’s ironic that this free movie on YouTube would be better than any other telling of the Fritzl case.
11 The Atomic Café (1982)
Featuring a sobering look at apocalyptic nuclear warfare, as well as the false information and propaganda implemented by the United States throughout the Cold War, the 1982 documentary The Atomic Café includes chilling narrator-less clips of newsreels and footage released by the government throughout the ’40s and the ’50s at the dawn of the nuclear age.
The Atomic Café Is a Harrowing Reflection of History
The thought-provoking picture premiered during the height of American cynicism and nostalgia when our nation’s citizens had diminished faith in the government, following both the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War. Through the use of military training footage, old television broadcasts, and propaganda films, viewers can get a taste of the hysteria and uncertainty running rampant throughout the country during that tense period in history.
10 A Murder in the Family (2016)
True crime has found a substantial home on YouTube in the past few years, with films like this being a notable example. When a British business person is murdered in his sleep in the Philippines in 2002, the mother of the victim, Margaret Davis, attempts to prove that her daughter-in-law was the one responsible. When Davis received a phone call telling her that her son was dead, she had no idea that the mastermind who was behind it all was the most unexpected suspect.
A Murder in the Family Leaves No Stone Unturned
A Murder in the Family takes true crime documentaries to a new level of suspense, providing insight into the ins and outs of the case, as well as how a mother uncovered the secrets around her son’s death. It takes the audience on a rollercoaster ride as the shocking events unfold.
9 The Creepy Line (2018)
This documentary explores social media’s impact and its profound effects on the way society thinks and behaves, as well as how it shapes public opinion overall. M.A. Taylor’s eye-opening 2018 documentary, The Creepy Line, shines a light on how major internet platforms like Facebook and Google manipulate the public via meddling with user data. The intriguing film analyzes how the two massive tech companies infringe on data privacy for their own ulterior motives, proving its case with in-depth interviews and extensive studies that will leave you on edge the next time you hop on the internet.
The Creepy Line Examines Big Tech’s Use of Your Data
Though this documentary was released in 2018, it’s more relevant than ever with the advent of publicly-accessible artificial intelligence and the growing prominence of cyberwarfare. The lack of dramatization is doubly appreciated, allowing its numerous presenters to state their case with few distractions.
8 Blackfish (2013)
There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Blackfish, even if you’ve never seen the film yourself. One of the most culturally significant documentaries of 2013, Blackfish‘s subject is that of a captive orca, Tilikum, who was featured at SeaWorld Orlando. However, after poor living conditions and several violent incidents plague Tilikum’s life in captivity, a violent outburst prompts wider discussion surrounding the utilization of captive orcas and the dubious ethics surrounding them.
Blackfish Had Real-Life Impacts
Blackfish saw a BAFTA Award nomination for Best Documentary, all while seemingly leaving behind a substantial impact on captive orcas. Much like how Tiger King drew attention to illicit exotic animals, Blackfish prompted significant backlash in the public eye surrounding Tilikum’s captivity. Legislation in states like New York and California would be enacted to ban the practice of using captive orcas for entertainment, with additional legislation allowing for the study of captivity’s effects on marine life.
That Time TLC Fooled Everyone With a Santa Claus Documentary
In 2014, TLC ventured into the original Christmas movie game with a “documentary” that would prove St. Nick’s existence. But what’s the whole story?
7 World’s Scariest Drug (2012)
This Vice documentary investigates a drug called Scopolamine, also known as The Devil’s Breath. Originally developed in Colombia, VICE examines the drug’s origins, its physiological effects, and why the drug itself has developed such an infamous reputation.
World’s Scariest Drug Isn’t Exaggerating
World’s Scariest Drug is extremely enlightening, examining the different effects it can have on one’s body — one of which is supposedly the power to make you incapable of exercising free will. The interviews conducted in this documentary are with the drug’s varied dealers and people’s personal experiences with the drug, painting a terrifying picture of one of the most dangerous substances on Earth. The story even takes a grim turn as more and more information is brought to light.
6 Life in a Day (2010)
Kevin Macdonald’s 2011 crowdsourced film Life in a Day features a breathtaking compilation of images and video clips from over 80,000 YouTube users over the course of one single day, with the footage being submitted from 192 nations across the world. The innovative and engrossing documentary is an emotionally-moving time capsule that captures what life was like for people from all walks of life, backgrounds, and countries, with the clips all being filmed on July 24, 2010.
Life in a Day Was a Bold Experiment
Life in a Day was a massive hit with viewers and critics, with many calling it a feel-good movie that truly embodies how beautiful and unique the planet and its inhabitants are. Its overwhelming success led to the equally captivating 2021 follow-up Life in a Day 2020, which depicted the tumultuous year that was plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic.
5 This Is What Winning Looks Like (2013)
Though the War in Afghanistan may have ended in 2021, the wounds left behind from the 20-year conflict will permeate history for generations. For those who had their boots on the ground, they likely know all too well how harrowing the conflict was. Vice’s 2013 documentary, This Is What Winning Looks Like, utilizes its title in a deliberately ironic fashion, depicting the state of the Afghan military circa 2013 from the perspective of a group of United States soldiers. In an effort to train the Afghan National Security Forces to prepare them in the absence of the United States military, several harrowing discoveries and dwindling morale deliberately clash with the military’s outwardly positive messaging.
This Is What Winning Looks Like Is Brutally Honest
From the perspective of the soldiers themselves, This Is What Winning Looks Like is brutally honest. It’s a film that presents an authentic perspective of the men and women serving during that period of time, along with the numerous difficulties faced via clashing societal structures and cultural expectations. More than a decade later, several prophetic statements made throughout would eventually become reality, turning this film into a somber time capsule.
4 Citizenfour (2014)
One of the most important documentaries of the past decade, Citizenfour is available completely for free with ads on YouTube. The film explores Edward Snowden’s disturbing revelations about government surveillance and the invasive behavior of the NSA. At the same time, through the trouble Laura Poitras had in making the film, Citizenfour also chronicles the disturbing antagonism the government has toward whistleblowers. The film is structured like one of the great conspiracy thrillers, except this one is disturbingly true.
Citizenfour Chronicles Government Surveillance and Invasions of Privacy
Knowing that Laura Poitras would later go on to direct All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, Citizenfour presents one of the most intimate examinations of the United States’ most polarizing whistleblower. While the information revealed by Snowden may be common knowledge by now, there’s something captivating about seeing him recount his experiences in person, unveiling one of the largest surveillance operations in global history. Citizenfour would later be the recipient of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2014.
3 Man on Wire (2008)
Adrenaline lovers and those not easily frightened by heights will find themselves completely engrossed with James Marsh’s 2008 pulse-pounding doc Man on Wire, which offers a thrilling look at famous high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s daring and dangerous 1974 walk between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. The film chronicles Petit’s meticulous planning of the death-defying act, which lasted for nearly an hour and resulted in the daredevil being arrested and subsequently released.
Man on Wire Will Leave You Breathless
The riveting picture premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was awarded the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, in addition to taking home the award for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. Both audiences and critics were blown away by the tense and electrifying cinematography, and watched with bated breath as Petit attempted the harrowing walk. Man on Wire currently holds a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score from over 150 reviews, and went on to inspire the 2015 film The Walk, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The 25 Greatest Documentary Films of All Time, Ranked
These films used vérité to create some of the most memorable entertainment in film history, proving that truth is often stranger than fiction.
2 13th (2016)
One of the rare documentaries that Netflix has put up completely for free on YouTube (with over 14 million views as a result), 13th is an important film that any American (or student of history) should watch. Ava DuVernay’s film dissects the history of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and its relationship to the prison-industrial complex. The film explores how slavery has never truly ended after the Civil War, but has rather been transferred to a massive political, legal, and corporate system which criminalizes Black citizens.
13th Is an Incredibly Poignant Documentary
13th saw a multitude of critical awards, the biggest of which being the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special, though it also saw an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Being such a complex topic to break down, DuVernay incorporates a terrific sense of pacing mixed with genuine passion, allowing for a broader understanding of an abhorrent practice that gradually evolved into a new form of systemic oppression.
1 20 Days in Mariupol (2023)
One of the best documentaries of 2023 is available in its entirety on YouTube. 20 Days in Mariupol, a collaboration between Frontline and The Associated Press, presents an unseen look at Russia’s siege of Mariupol over the course of 20 days, following Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine. Breathtaking footage provided by Ukrainian journalists trapped inside the city creates a haunting snapshot of the conflict as it started in 2022.
20 Days in Mariupol Is an Essential Documentary
20 Days in Mariupol saw extensive critical praise from the world over, with many naming it as one of the single greatest documentaries of 2023. Though footage of the war has since become more publicly accessible after the initial siege, the images depicted here are nothing short of terrifying. Simultaneously, the bravery depicted by both ordinary citizens and the many moving pieces guiding them to safety is incredible to witness. From a contemporary standpoint, 20 Days in Mariupol is one of the most essential wartime documentaries to watch in the past few years.