The best documentaries on HBO

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Steven L. Ken

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"Truth is stranger than fiction", or so said the famous American writer Mark Twain. While the latter has to be plausible for the reader to take the story seriously, the former offers a whole world of possibilities that go beyond believability.

HBO documentaries work with the incredibility of truth, and perhaps this is why we find them so fascinating. Whether it's the voyeuristic yearning to know the intimate life of a public figure, the curiosity to discover the details of a historical event, or the desire to analyze an uncomfortable or complicated subject in depth, documentaries open our eyes to the most shocking, emotional, curious or terrifying aspects of our world.

Today we encourage you to discover new and impossible truths about the world around us through our selection of the best documentaries on HBO.

HBO documentaries that will make you see the world with different eyes

HBO is mainly known for popular series such as Game of Thrones, Veep, Euphoria, Big Little Lies or Chernobyl, but what many people don't know are its documentaries - both feature films and docuseries - of great quality, many of which have been critically acclaimed and awarded with several prizes.

Below we've compiled a list of some of the best documentaries on HBO, because learning about the world around us has never been so fascinating!

Vitals: A Human Story (2021)

We start the list with a very recent documentary with a subject matter that still affects us all in a very direct way. We've all seen the numbers and statistics, and heard endless news anchors repeat the same words, but this three-episode documentary brings us face to face with the people behind the numbers and the news - those who have lived directly through the most devastating consequences of the Covid-19 crisis.

Directed by Fèlix Colomer, Vitals shows in an incredibly moving and human way the direct testimonies of patients, health workers and families affected by the pandemic. The documentary shows us the closest reality, placing the camera in the Hospital Parc Taulí in Sabadell during the first months of the deadliest months of the virus.

The result is a documentary that portrays the most painful and emotional momentslived by our neighbors, our friends and acquaintances, maybe even by ourselves, in a past so recent that is present. Absolutely essential to remind everyone that only with what makes us more human - empathy, love and solidarity towards others - we can get out of this.

Welcome to Chechnya (2020)

We continue to meet the best documentaries on HBO to talk about this documentary directed by David France and winner of multiple international awards. Welcome to Chechnya portrays the harsh and heartbreaking reality suffered by LGBT survivors in Chechnya, Russia, as they try to escape a country that punishes their very existence.

Welcome to Chechnya follows the work of several activists on their mission to rescue LGBT refugees from concentration and torture camps in Chechnya. The documentary required a great deal of work to protect the identities of the victims, as well as filming necessarily done in secret using hidden cameras, cell phones and other resources.

The documentary represents a very human perspective on the subject, so the director wanted to put faces to the protagonists. The need to protect their identity made this difficult, so the solution was found in a novel use of facial substitution techniques using advanced visual effects technology.

The documentary was highly praised for its portrayal of a highly alarming current situation, and received awards at the Sundance Film Festival and the Berlin International Film Festival, among others.

Allen V. Farrow (2021)

Another very recent documentary, Allen V. Farrow has caused controversy among opinion for its treatment of the accusations against the famous film director Woody Allen .

"It doesn't matter what the truth is. What matters is what people believe," says Mia Farrow. And the reactions both to the documentary and to the accusations themselves show that the truths are uncomfortable. A subject that is as complicated as it is controversial, Allen V. Farrow analyzes the whole story behind the sexual abuse allegations against director Woody Allen, the custody battle with Mia Farrow, and Allen's relationship with his ex-wife's daughter, Soon-Yi.

With one of Hollywood's most controversial and outrageous cases in recent years at its center, Allen V. Farrow brings us closer to testimony and details, but remembering Farrow's words, opinion may always remain divided on what makes this scandal.

Collective (2019).

Collective, from director Alexander Nanau, is another of the best documentaries on HBO. It features excellent journalistic work that brings to light the most egregious, brutal and terrible corruption in the Romanian healthcare system.

The documentary follows the investigation of a group of journalists uncovering the injustices and corruption of the Romanian government and healthcare system after a tragic fire at the Colectiv club. 27 people died in the accident, but some of the 180 injured ended up dying months after the tragedy because of the poor organization and functioning of the hospitals.

The findings of the journalists in their investigative work were incredibly revealing, but unfortunately - as with so many things in reality - this documentary does not come to a happy ending that solves the problems. The rot in the system goes so far that the necessary solution seems impossible. Documentaries like Collective, at the very least, make these unbearable situations visible, and the first step in moving forward is always to recognize the need for improvement.

Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (2017)

From a disheartening (albeit necessary) production, we move on to a tender and much more heartwarming documentary that is a must-see for fans of American cinema.

Bright Lights shows us two of Hollywood's most iconic actresses, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher - mother and daughter - in a documentary filmed shortly before the sudden death of both in December 2016.

The two stars recount family memories and Hollywood stories, as well as inviting the viewer to hear more intimate stories such as their illnesses, for example. The characteristic mother-daughter humor stands out, as well as the obvious tenderness and love they had for each other.

Revolts in Baltimore (2017)

Baltimore Rising is another one of the best documentaries on HBO. It shows the state of the city of Baltimore after the death of young African-American Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015. The documentary follows the various protests and riots that erupted, and gives voice to the community by showing multiple perspectives of the events, including that of the police.

The documentary focuses on the particular case of Freddie Gray, in the city of Baltimore and the protests that flooded the news, but Baltimore Riots also serves to give a deeper understanding of Black Lives Matter in general. This activist movement that emerged in the United States is not a new thing born out of the protests we all remember from 2020, but is an idea that the African American community has been fighting for for many years, obviously before 2015 as well, and one that is no less relevant because of events such as the one this documentary is about.

Revolts in Baltimore was directed and produced by actress Sonja Sohn, known for her role in The Wire, also from HBO.

Tiger (2021)

Produced by Best Documentary Oscar winner Alex Gibney, comes Tiger, an exploration of the extraordinary rise, precipitous fall, and unexpected recovery of global golf giant Tiger Woods.

The documentary, divided into two episodes, doesn't feature the golfer himself, but it does feature numerous testimonials from the ups and downs of his career. These include his close friends and Rachel Uchitel, the protagonist of the famous sportsman's sex scandal, who gives her first interview on the subject.

The documentary offers a detailed look at all aspects of Tiger Woods' career and scandals, with an exploration of the effects of his family on him, the constant pressure and fame and the role of the media among others. And every aspect of this golf icon's story even seems unbelievable, including his recent miraculous and totally unexpected return from the depths of the abyss back to the top.

Exterminate All Savages (2021)

A documentary divided into four episodes, Exterminate All Savages sets out with an ambitious goal: to analyze the issues and effects of colonization and genocide perpetuated by imperialism and white supremacy.

Director and filmmaker Raoul Peck serves as a guide throughout the documentary, basing his research on the works of various historians, but also bringing his own experiences and personal voice to bear. The result is a monumental and powerful historical work that questions the foundations of the Western world.

The documentary makes a critical reflection on the way history has been written and the single, white perspective it usually gives in an exhaustive and revealing study that should complement every Western history class.

In the Mind of Robin Williams (2018).

Directed by Marina Zenovich, this documentary pays tribute to the life and career of popular actor Robin Williams, who passed away in 2014. It is a portrait built through unpublished videos and interviews that assemble a narrative of Robin himself accompanied by the perspective of the people who knew him most intimately, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, or David Letterman among others, including his family.

The documentary shows the most personal - and funny, of course! - delving into his creative process, his vulnerabilities, and his tireless and noble mission to make others laugh.

In the Mind of Robin Williams received rave reviews from audiences and critics alike for its humane and rigorous portrayal of all facets of this much-loved comedian.

Leaving Neverland (2019)

We end our selection of the best documentaries on HBO with probably the best known, but also most controversial on the list. Director and filmmaker Dan Reed gives voice to two men, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who expose their personal childhood experiences as victims of sexual abuse by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

Although the documentary's positioning of the allegations is clear, as it focuses on the testimonies of the two victims, Leaving Neverland is meant to serve as a platform to amplify their voices, rather than make a direct accusation towards the singer. This, however, did not save it from a potent controversy among a sharply divided public, as detractors were quick to point out contradictions in Robson and Safechuck's stories.

Whether you believe the two men's detailed stories or not (it's not the first time the pop giant had received such accusations, though they were later denied), Leaving Neverland opens the door to a reflection on the entertainment industry and the vulnerability of the children involved in it, as well as the trauma suffered by victims of abuse, and the need to both talk about and listen to these experiences.

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