HBO has made some of the most acclaimed TV shows of the last decade or two, but that’s not all the network is known for. The company also produces some incredible documentaries covering a wide range of subjects. If you’re looking for compelling, educational content, here are some of the best documentaries HBO has to offer. We also rounded up some of the best shows and movies available on HBO, if you’re in the mood for fiction.
‘Beware the Slenderman’
The internet is an incredible petri dish in which to observe the ways in which ideas and stories can spread and evolve, and Slender Man is one of the best examples. Originating as part of a competition on the Something Awful forums to create creepy Photoshopped images, Slender Man — a tall, pale, faceless humanoid — developed into a sort-of folklore figure for the internet, with people around the world building on the concept through stories, video games, even short films. The Slender Man mythos crossed into the mainstream in a dark way, however, in 2014, when two girls in Wisconsin stabbed a classmate, claiming Slender Man forced them to do it. Beware the Slenderman investigates the case, using interviews with people close to the incident, to try and understand how such a thing could happen.
‘Gasland Part II’
Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland proved to be one of the most important environmental films of the 21st century, galvanizing the anti-fracking movement, and while the sequel doesn’t break new ground, it does show how far activists still need to go. The film investigates the industry behind hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — an “unconventional” process of extracting natural gas in which companies pump large amounts of fluid into rock formations to break them up and release gas. The process is controversial for its potential to contaminate drinking water — not to mention contributions to climate change. The first film focused on fracking in the U.S., while Part II expands its scope to the rest of the world, examining how big energy companies are trying to expand as much as possible while thwarting the efforts of authorities to regulate their activities.
‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’
Alex Gibney’s Going Clear takes a look inside the Church of Scientology, a religious organization built around the teachings of science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Many have compared Scientology to a cult, and given its high-profile adherents — including Tom Cruise and John Travolta — it remains a subject of fascination. Gibney’s film focuses on the inner workings of the Church, touching on issues of tax evasion, exploitation, and even allegations of abuse within the organization.
‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’
Mommy Dead and Dearest explores the disturbing and tragic story of mother and daughter Dee Dee and Gypsy Rose Blanchard. Dee Dee presented herself to the world as a doting mother, caring for her terminally ill daughter. When police discovered Dee Dee murdered in her house, with Gypsy nowhere in sight, the story turned out to be much darker than anyone could have imagined. Filmmaker Erin Lee Carr investigates the strange case, exploring how Dee Dee lied to the world and to Gypsy about her daughter’s illness, holding the latter hostage emotionally and physically. It is a fascinating, gut-wrenching account of abuse and delusion.
‘4 Little Girls’
Of the many tragedies of the Jim Crow era, one of the most horrific was the 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young girls. Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls is a clear-eyed examination of the bombing and the context surrounding it. Lee interviews witnesses and people close to the event, weaving in archival footage. Although it offers a comprehensive narrative of a major event in the Civil Rights movement, Lee’s film is also a deeply personal one, never losing its focus on the girls who died, and the people who mourn them.
‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills’
Long before the recent surge in true crime documentaries, Paradise Lost, from filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, told the story of three teenagers — Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin — on trial for the murders of three young boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Paradise Lost follows the trials, in which the prosecution argued that the accused murdered the boys as part of a Satanic ritual. The film takes a critical eye toward the prosecution’s case, but it also explores the reactions from the community, including the parent’s of the victims and those of the defendants.
For journalists, stories sometimes have a mind of their own; the story you think you are pursuing in the beginning may be very different from the one you find in the end. That is what happened to David Farrier, who stumbled upon a video of “competitive endurance tickling” online. He reached out to the company that produced the video, only to get a rather rude response. Over the course of Tickled, Farrier tries to uncover the truth behind the strange world of competitive tickling, but his investigation may be more hazardous than he realizes. Tickled is a unique documentary where the story appears too bizarre to be true.