Nine Gripping New Documentaries to Stream Over Thanksgiving Break
If you’re a documentary lover who’s looking to catch up on recent nonfiction films over the Thanksgiving holiday, look no further than FRONTLINE.
We’ve curated a collection of nine must-watch documentaries from the past few months that will surprise you, challenge you, and stay with you.
They’re stories about people — surviving a megafire, getting caught in a drug war, navigating a world transformed by artificial intelligence, and becoming a mother in the middle of a war zone.
Some of the nine documentaries embedded below are feature-length films. Others are shorter documentaries. Each and every one of them will immerse you in lives other than your own in compelling, perspective-changing ways. And — they’re all streaming, for free, right here on this page, as well as on the PBS Video App.
In a time of conflict and darkness in her home in Aleppo, Syria, one young woman kept her camera rolling — while falling in love, getting married, and having a baby as her city crumbled. The resulting documentary has won more than 30 honors on the film festival circuit, including the best documentary prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Stream the feature-length film that critics are calling “gripping,” “truly outstanding,” and “superb.”
Another acclaimed theatrical release, this documentary is an unflinching, on-the-ground look at President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs in the Philippines — both those carrying it out, and those most impacted. The filmmakers embedded with a police unit implementing the crackdown, filming officers laughing as they spoke about the deaths of drug suspects: “If they are stubborn, then we will kill them,” a now-former police chief says in one particularly stunning scene.
How did Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi crown prince, rise to power — and how has he maintained it? With on-the-ground reporting from Saudi Arabia, including the crown prince’s first comments on his role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, this documentary examines Prince Mohammed’s vision for the future, his crackdown on dissent, his relationship with the United States — and his ties to Khashoggi’s killing, which the CIA concluded he ordered. The film raises serious questions about how the October 2018 murder could have been, as Saudi officials have insisted, a “rogue operation.”
The 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest and most destructive blaze in California state history, burning an area the size of Chicago and killing more than 80 people. This documentary features stunning body-cam and cell phone footage from those in the path of the inferno, and shares tales of both miraculous escape and unfathomable loss. “I told my husband, ‘I can’t run through fire,’” says survivor Nichole Jolly, who was stranded in her car after helping to evacuate the hospital where she worked. “And he said, ‘You’re going to have to.’” The documentary also raises tough questions about who and what are to blame for the fire’s catastrophic toll, and traces why many residents weren’t officially alerted to evacuate until it was too late — if at all.
How did opposition to immigration become the signature policy of Donald Trump’s presidency? This documentary goes inside the current crisis on the border, and finds that it’s been underpinned by years of planning from three anti-immigration hardliners who saw in Trump a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I said, this is our guy. He’s a very imperfect instrument, but he’s an armor-piercing shell,” says Steve Bannon, who made up the trio along with Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller. The film traces how Miller, Sessions and Bannon helped Trump turned anti-immigration fervor into a powerful political weapon that fueled division and violence, and how they’ve waged a war to keep their “imperfect instrument” on course.
When it comes to artificial intelligence, the future is now. That’s a key takeaway from this comprehensive look at how AI will change our world — and how it already has. The transformation that’s underway is replete with both promise and peril: On the one hand, we meet people deploying AI algorithms to solve urgent problems, like an AI scientist at MIT who turned her breast cancer diagnosis into a tool to save lives. But we also see how AI is being used to dystopian ends — like in China’s Xinjiang region, home to millions of Uighur Muslims, where an artificial intelligence system the government claims can predict individuals prone to “terrorism” is part of a crackdown that has seen an estimated million or more people detained in so-called “reeducation” camps.
For two years, a FRONTLINE team in Flint worked to uncover the true toll of the city’s water crisis. This documentary tells the story of what they found, revealing how a public health disaster that’s become known for the lead poisoning of thousands of children also spawned one of the largest outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease in U.S. history. Among the key takeaways: Approximately 70 deaths during the water crisis may have gone uncounted. The public wasn’t notified about the deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease for more than a year — and neither were most medical professionals. Members of a scientific team say the state repeatedly tried to impede their efforts to identify the source of the Legionnaires’ outbreak. And before Flint’s water supply was changed, the operations supervisor at the city’s water plant warned that “people are gonna die.”
Under President Donald Trump, the mass detention of migrant children has climbed to record numbers. This documentary, a joint investigation from FRONTLINE and The Associated Press, reveals the scope of the growing network of federally-funded shelter programs — and the impact of being held in U.S. government custody on young people’s developing psyches. “I’m still scared that something bad could happen… the way how I look at things has changed and like I don’t feel safe anymore,” says a 16-year-old boy who shares his story in the film.
Fifteen years of war have had a devastating effect on Iraq’s women and girls. It’s been estimated that there are more than a million widows in Iraq and more than 800,000 children have lost parents, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation. And in some cases, the people facilitating that exploitation are corrupt Iraqi clerics. With undercover reporting, this documentary reveals how, to increasing concern among other Iraqi Shias, some clerics are abusing an ancient Islamic marriage practice: They’re offering to perform what’s known as muta’ah or munqata’a — “pleasure” or “temporary” marriages – between adult men and girls as young as 13 in exchange for money. The documentary also shows clerics essentially acting as pimps, and offers the chilling accounts of young women who say they were exploited and forced into repeated “pleasure marriages.” “When a girl starts, she’s destroyed,” one such girl, who is now 16, says. “Her life ends the first day she takes this road.”
All of these documentaries have aired on FRONTLINE within the past three months — and many more new films are on the way. Subscribe to the FRONTLINE newsletter to make sure you don’t miss a single premiere.