Bored of Netflix’s Offerings? Check Out Two Great Places to Stream Great Documentaries For Free

By  · Published on May 27th, 2014

Oscilloscope Pictures

People often ask me where to find great documentaries outside of Netflix. Of course they mean easily and for free. Obviously there are tons of great nonfiction films not found in the Netflix Watch Instantly library, and maybe not even in the Netflix DVD library. Many of them are best found directly through the filmmakers, like the majority of Frederick Wiseman’s films, or through distributors like Icarus Films. But people don’t want to buy discs, especially for docs they haven’t yet seen; they want to stream them online or on their iPad. Preferably at no cost.

I hear mostly from documentary fans regarding how slight the streaming division of Netflix is with quality docs now. For a while, the Watch Instantly service appeared to be actually creating many of those fans by giving movie lovers a way to discover great docs very easily. Today you can still find some necessary titles on NWI, such as The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, Sherman’s March and Ken Burns’s The Civil War, and many of the best new docs hit the service at least for a little while (I’m sure I could recommend you about 50 docs to watch right now), but a ton of crap has been flooding the library of late, stuff that either is or resembles the worst of nonfiction television.

While Netflix is still extremely valuable, it doesn’t seem to be enough for hardcore cinephiles and docuphiles. It also does have a subscription fee. A number of other great outlets for documentary streaming come with a price, too, albeit a lower one but for far fewer titles overall. For instance, I regularly suggest SundanceNow’s Doc Club, which is only $5 per month (half that if you go for a longer subscription) for a year’s worth of titles curated by theme by Toronto Film Festival programmer Thom Powers. Yet I don’t always love every selection added to the mix, and maybe that’s because a few seem to be more there to fit the program than because they’re great films. Next up for June, though, is a program of Agnes Varda films, all of which are musts for any doc fan.

Another outlet I’ve recently gotten into is Fandor, which isn’t strictly documentaries (neither is SundanceNow, though other genres there are via a la carte rentals) but the stuff they do have is for the more highbrow doc aficionado. They appeal to people who’d be attracted by exclusives from Werner Herzog (which we covered recently) and Chris Marker. There’s a lot of experimental and avant-garde films, foreign films, old educational films and propaganda films among their catalog of nonfiction features and shorts. It’s not all obscure stuff, don’t worry. It is kinda pricey, yet still cheaper than both NWI and Hulu Plus (which is good mostly for Criterion Collection docs) if you go with a year’s subscription at $90.

Then there are also YouTube channels like the one from Docurama, a distribution arm of Cinedigm Entertainment specifically including their nonfiction titles. There you get access to most of their docs, including Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, for only $2.99 per month. But it is YouTube, and for every great film there’s one that’s not great at all. It’s also moot now that Docurama is getting rid of the YouTube channel after launching a new free streaming option. It is ad-driven, however (reminiscent of SnagFilms and others), and currently only available on devices like Roku, XBox 360 and Amazon Fire (an iPad app is coming soon). You can’t watch on your computer or even see the films they have available on their website.

I used my Roku to try it out with Best Worst Movie the other night and was mostly pleased. The only advertiser they appear to have at the moment is CarMax, so I saw their same three commercials over and over, and it seems too frequent and random when those ads begin, though while it does interrupt scenes smack in the middle of dialogue, the movie always starts back up a few seconds earlier so you’re not missing anything. At the moment, a lot of their titles overlap with NWI, where a lot of Cinedigm’s new releases land, but it’s great for those who don’t subscribe to NWI or want something else (they promise at least 1,000 titles by mid-summer). If you can’t stand the ads, each title can be rented for two bucks.

Finally there’s my new favorite, just recently introduced to me: Doc Alliance Films, which is a streaming service partnered with a bunch of foreign doc fests like CPH:DOX and DOK Leipzig. Actually, I’ve been on their site before to rent something I couldn’t find anywhere before, but I’d ignored it for the most part because it’s a European outlet and the film rental prices are in Euros and not everything is accessible in North America. The part of Doc Alliance that I’ve been turned onto is their weekly offering of free docs, programmed by theme and mostly available here. For instance, this week they have four films programmed for a free event tied to London’s Open City Docs Fest, one of the titles being FSR’s pick for best doc of 2012, Tchoupitoulas. You can and should watch it right here (free stream expires on June 1st):

Of the other three available free this week, The Venice Syndrome can’t be streamed in America while Wonder House and Karaoke Girl represent a fairly broad definition of documentary. They’re both hybrids with fictional elements, which might not be what some doc fans are looking for when asking me for streaming doc recommendations. I’ll admit that even Wonder House is pretty out there as far as my own tastes are concerned. I loved watching it (on my iPad, without an app, and it looked amazing), and I’d agree with its qualification as a doc, but it’s definitely more qualified as being beyond classification. I look forward to what else they offer up now, including a program next month tied to the World Cup and a retrospective on Swiss director Richard Dindo.

As for other free streaming options, there are sites like Top Documentary Films and Documentary Addict, but I always warn people against those because most of their offerings are insignificant docs while others are bootleg versions from YouTube and elsewhere – many you’ll find are already deleted, in fact. As for more legit spots, I am excited about the recent upload by British Pathe of their entire archive of 85,000 films, most of which are newsreel clips of historical events, so short but also so vital to any nonfiction enthusiast.

And maybe there are other outlets out there that I’m not familiar with. Unlike Docurama’s ad-supported channel, Doc Alliance isn’t a new service, just something I’ve been newly made aware of. Let me know of any I’m missing. And let me know where you like to stream documentaries, online or on a device, for free or by subscription.

Update: I’ve been reminded, and I’m kicking myself for forgetting, to mention the National Film Board of Canada, which has an incredible catalog of docs for free to stream on their website, including classics like Pour la Suite du Monde, Les Raquetteurs and my personal favorite, Lonely Boy.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.