Three Independent Documentaries with Unexpected Themes

One of the wonderful things about independent documentaries is that they often lead the viewer to unexpected places, through unusual experiences and to surprising conclusions. Some 64% of documentary professionals feel that we are currently enjoying a ‘golden era’ for documentary films, with the industry enjoying a great deal of attention at present.

As such, here we look at three documentaries that epitomize the trend of documentaries leading viewers to whole other places than they expected to be led.


Credit: Pixabay

One of the most controversial documentaries of 2016, Tickled saw New Zealand journalist David Farrier and his colleague Dylan Reeve set out to make a light-hearted film about the popularity of tickling among adults. However, the documentary ended up a long way from where Farrier and Reeve expected, including a stack of lawsuits.

Farrier was initially inspired to make the film when he found out about the world of “Competitive Endurance Tickling.” Strong, attractive young men are tickled by other men to see who can stand the tickling for the longest time – definitely great fodder for an independent documentary maker.

Farrier set off to California with Reeve to find out more about the world of endurance tickling. The resulting documentary uncovered a network of ‘tickle cells’ stretching from the US to Canada, Australia and Europe, with young men paid vast sums to participate.

It also reported on a darker side to this booming tickling industry, with those who regretted their participation in the competition videos reportedly being subjected to intense harassment campaigns. The supposedly light-hearted subject matter took a number of dark turns during the filmmaking process, resulting in one of the most unexpected and talked about documentaries of the year, as well as several lawsuits from those who felt they had not been portrayed in the best light as part of the documentary. 

Bingo! The Documentary

Credit: Pixabay

Another independent documentary that surprises as well as informs, Bingo! The Documentary explores the world of contemporary bingo, from Britain and Ireland to the US.

Bingo attracts a larger audience than rock concerts and movies, with online bingo adding to the game’s popularity in recent years thanks to the prevalence of welcome offers such as 500% deposit bonuses. Bingo’s charms certainly caught the attention of filmmaker John Jeffcoat, who explores players’ motivations and experiences as they enjoy everything from the traditional bingo hall experience to gay bingo and bingo cruises. Part of the fascination of the film is the diverse range of players that bingo attracts. It explores the Catholic church’s long-standing association with bingo, as well as the more recent adoption of the game by drag queens around the world.

However, the documentary goes on to take a deeper look at the world of bingo, exploring not just the addition of the thrill of the game, but also the social element and related societal issues. Loneliness and the social impact of an ageing population all come into play, turning the documentary into a far more poignant film than one might expect from a humorous look at the world of modern bingo.

Gates of Heaven

Credit: Pixabay

An absolute classic in the genre of independent documentaries is Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven. Made way back in 1978, the film focuses on two families who run pet cemeteries: Not the creepy kind of the Stephen King novel, but enterprises designed to provide beloved pets with a dignified end to their days.

Viewed by many as an ‘underground legend’ (as Roger Ebert termed it), the film follows Floyd “Mac” McClure and John “Cal” Harberts, who run rival pet cemetery businesses in the US. It also explores the motivations of pet owners who use the services, seeking to give their furred and feathered companions a graceful send-off. There also the other side of the ‘industry’ – in the form of competition from a local rendering plant.

Far more than simply a documentary about those who like to bury their pets – and those who facilitate them doing so – the film is an exploration of human nature, pursuing issues of love, companionship, emotional connections and filial duty through the interviews with those who take part. It’s an absolute must for documentary fans.  

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