Documentaries are insightful and educational. They document reality from a concrete perspective and represent the world through a non-fictional lens. Documentaries can be used for educational, entertainment, activism, personal expression, journalism, or instructional purposes.

As a teacher, you can use the communicative and educational power of documentaries to introduce students to new concepts, enhance their learning, and expand their academic as well as civics knowledge. Documentaries enable students to experience the world through alternative perspectives, exploring new cultures and ways of living and being. Documentaries are also ideal to raise students’ critical awareness about complex issues related to human rights, environment, climate change, oppression, gender-based violence, and many more. 

However, concomitant with using documentaries with students, I recommend that students learn  the importance of critical thinking as a way to assess and internalize knowledge. A documentary, regardless of its authenticity and educational intent, is always narrated and created from a particular perspective, one that foregrounds certain ideas and concepts and probably silence others. Hence the importance of students being able to ponder critical questions regarding the documentary practice. 

A documentary practice “refers to what people do with media devices, content, form, and production strategies to address the creative, ethical, and conceptual problems and choices that arise as they make documentaries”1. Students need to be comfortable asking and finding answers to questions such as:

Who is behind the creation of the documentary?What purposes is the documentary created for?What ideologies, agenda, or concepts does it seek to promote or advocate?Are there any potential ethical problems involved in the creation and sharing of the documentary content?How are vulnerable groups and minorities represented in the documentary and why?

These and several other questions consist the base of a critical thinking checklist that students need to keep handy to use not only with video content but with any other type of content. Growth happens when we step out of our comfort zones and grapple with complex and challenging ideas and concepts. Documentaries are definitely one of the conduits for such growth. 

What is a documentary?

A documentary is a non-fictional movie, one that, according to Google Dictionary, involves using “pictures or interviews with people involved in real events to provide a factual report on a particular subject.” As a factual movie, a documentary seeks to “document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education or maintaining a historical record”2.

Best websites for free educational documentaries

Below is a collection of some of the best websites for free educational documentaries. Check it out and share with us your feedback.

1. Netflix

Netflix offers a wide variety of educational documentaries that you can use with students in class. You do need a Netflix account to be able to access these resources. Netflix offers a one-time educational screenings of its original documentaries. This is basically a free service created specially for teachers and educators. Documentaries that are available for educational screenings are tagged with the label Grant of Permission or Educational Screenings Permission (ESP).

There are certain guidelines that you need to meet to use Netflix educational screenings which you can learn more about in this page. According to Netflix, a one-time screening means “that you can’t hold screenings several times in one day or one week – but if, for example, you’re an educator who wants to show these films or series once a semester over multiple semesters, that’s okay.”

2. Internet Archive

Internet Archive hosts a huge collection of free and public domain documentaries and video content. Most of the video content featured on Internet Archive can be downloaded in multiple formats including MP3. Use the site’s integrated search functionality to search titles you are interested in. Make sure to play around with the search filters to help you quickly find what you are looking for. 

3. Top Documentary Films

Top Documentary Films (TDF) is a website that curates documentaries from various video hosting services such as YouTube, Vimeo, Daily Motion, among others. TDF organizes these documentaries into accessible collections that are easy to navigate. Top Documentary Films only embeds documentaries and does not host them on its servers. The service is completely free and does not require any registration or log in. 

Each documentary comes with a detailed description of what it is about and a section for sharing comments. An email address is required to share comments. Some documentaries generate really fruitful discussions among the community of viewers, however, as a teacher keen on using TDF with students you may want to exert discretion as some of the content in comments may not be age appropriate.

Documentaries in Top Documentary Films are arranged into different categories including Science, Society, History, Health, Economics, Drugs, Crime, Biography, Art, Nature, Philosophy, Religion, Technology, Media, Sports, Mystery, Environment, and more. There is also a list of top 100 non-fiction films as rated by TDF viewers. 

4. Documentary Heaven

Documentary Heaven is similar to Top Documentary Films. It curates and embeds documentaries from different online sources (e.g., Google Videos, YouTube, Vimeo, YouKu, Mega Video, etc). It also allows viewers to interact and share feedback through the commenting system (email is required for sharing comments). You can browse documentaries by different categories including Nature, Music, Countries, Science, Society, Philosophy, Religion, Psychology, Politics, Business, Lifestyle, Activist, Human Rights, Educational, Space, Technology, Evolution, War, and many more. 

5. Documentary Mania

Documentary Mania is another good resource of free educational documentaries to use in your instruction. These documentaries are sourced from platforms such as MVGroup, Vimeo, YouTube, among others. The important contribution of Documentary Mania besides organizing video content into accessible categories is adding subtitles to make it easy for individuals who are deaf or have hearing problems to enjoy the viewing experience as everybody else. English subtitles are also useful for students learning English. They can help them “improve their English in an enjoyable, relaxed and informative way.”

Another cool feature provided by Documentary Mania is the category for 3D documentaries which features a wide range of high quality 3D documentaries spanning various topics from the world of oceans to the world of aeronautics and rainforests. Other categories included in the website are Art, Culture, History, Medicine, Nature, Science, and Technology. 

Each of these categories contains a number of subcategories. For instance, under the general category of Culture you will find documentaries arranged into the following sub-categories: Anthropology and Sociology, Current Topics, Ideas and Movements, Peoples, Politics, Religions, Sports, and Travel.

6. Watch Documentaries

Watch Documentaries is another good resource of free online documentaries curated and organized into neat categories that are easily accessible. You can browse documentaries by category, comment using an email address, and check top 100 list.Watch Documentaries also offers a section called Recommended where you can access what they termed a collection of “some mind-blowing documentaries that are educational, informative and motivational.”

Featured categories in Watch Documentaries include: 9/11, Art, Music, Business, Comedy, Crime, Drugs, Politics, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Science, Nature, Environment, Media, Sports, Society, Technology, War, Health, Performing Arts, and many more.

7. Documentary Storm

Documentary Storm features a huge collection of educational documentaries fetched from various sources around the web. You can check trending documentaries, explore new releases, learn about top rated titles, and more. You can also browse documentaries by categories including Art, Biography, Culture, Science, Philosophy, Religion, War, Nature, Sports, Society, and more.

8. Over 200 Free Documentaries, Open Culture

Open Culture has this excellent collection featuring over 200 free documentaries covering different topics including politics, religion, literature, cinema, music, physics, and many more. Simply browse through the collection and click on the title you like to access it. Sometimes the documentary is hosted on YouTube and often times you will be provided with links where you can watch and learn more about the documentary. 

9.  Apple iTunes

This is not free but worth the mention here. Apple iTunes, like Netflix, streams original documentaries that you can watch (for a fee) on various devices including Apple TV. You can browse Apple’s documentaries by alphabet or you can use your iTunes application to access them. 

Most of the documentaries are available for either rent or purchase. Also, each documentary in iTunes comes with a short overview of its content, information about things such as the cast and crew, director and producers, duration, rating, and many more.  The majority of Apple documentaries include accessibility features such as closed captions, subtitles, and support for many languages. 

1. Documentary films, Documentary Mania 
2. Documentary film, Wikipedia