by Jonathan Rimmer

JUST a few days ago, Netflix saw its stock reach an all-time high. The streaming TV service now commands a global subscriber base of 104 million, with five million people signing up in the last three months alone.

Incredibly, Netflix is 20 years old. When it was launched in August 1997 it was little more than a DVD rental company – today it dominates the video streaming market and has expanded into film and television production, creating some of the most innovative programmes available today.

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When people think Netflix, they tend to think 'entertainment' - Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards, Grace and Frankie, Orange is the New Black and 13 Reasons Why are all dramas and comedies that have become household names thanks to Netflix, which produced them through its studio arm, Netflix Originals.

However, Netflix isn't just about escapism. It is also producing some of the best documentaries around and releasing cutting edge long-form journalism in film-form.

Here, to celebrate, it's upcoming 20th birthday, we showcase the ten best Netflix Original Documentaries for you to check out.

Making a Murderer

The doc that really made Netflix's name as a producer of serious journalism. Making a Murderer looks at the life of Wisconsin man Steven Avery, who was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985. After serving 18 years of a 32-year sentence, he was exonerated by DNA testing and released, only to be charged with murder two years later. The programme is ten parts long with each episode varying in length, allowing the twists and turns to dictate the rhythm of the show, not ad breaks and TV schedules. The series became water-cooler TV for millions across the world and won four Emmys putting Netflix on the map as a serious documentary studio. Some viewers, though, felt frustrated by the lack of resolution to the show - though a second planned series may provide the answers they were looking for...

The Keepers

Another documentary about an unsolved murder, this time a cold case, The Keepers has been almost universally acclaimed for its more sensitive approach than Making A Murderer. The seven-part series explores the murder and alleged sexual abuse of Sister Cathy Cesnik, a nun who worked at a Baltimore high school in the 1960s. What begins as an unsolved murder soon spins out to include organised sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. Whereas films like Spotlight analysed journalists’ role in uncovering abuse by paedophile priests in America, The Keepers looks more closely at how ordinary citizens can bring the right people to justice. Rather than sensationalise, it prioritises sharing the victims’ experiences. This makes for a better doc, but it is a harrowing watch.

Hot Girls Wanted

There are countless documentaries about pornography, but many fall into the trap of representing the industry through a prurient male gaze. Hot Girls Wanted avoids such voyeurism and is more focused on examining why young women enter (and often leave) the porn business. The original Hot Girls Wanted was a stand-alone film released in 2015, but Netflix subsequently commissioned a six-episode series called ‘Turned On’. It’s less melodramatic than the original film, but all seven parts are presented in a refreshingly empathetic way.

The Ivory Game

Whether they are fixating on poverty, civil war or wildlife, filmmakers tend to look at Africa through a western lens. Although co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, The Ivory Game broadly manages to avoid this approach by highlighting life from the locals’ perspective. The film examines the African ivory trade and how elephants continue to be killed wholesale by poachers and Chinese merchants. The tone is persuasive – we’re told elephants will be extinct within the next 15 years if governments don’t act – but not preachy. Instead, much of the film consists of hidden camera footage so we can observe the brutality ourselves.

Amanda Knox

One of Netflix’s great strengths is it can be looser with timing when commissioning documentaries. However, they made the right call in waiting until the final decision in the infamous Amanda Knox case to air this film. The American woman, who spent four years in an Italian jail after being convicted for the murder of a fellow exchange student, has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories over the past decade. This documentary neatly separates fact from fiction over the course of 90 minutes.

Art of Conflict: The Murals of Northern Ireland

Art of Conflict was officially the first ever Netflix Original ever premiered. It's a fascinating look at the Irish Troubles through the paramilitary art that adorns city streets - although bizarrely it is presented by Vince Vaughan (but don't let that put you off). Although the murals shown in the film depict provocative, upsetting or even horrifying events and situations, they reflect the reality of life in Ulster when the shadow of a gunman fell across the country.

13th

Netflix has a penchant for films about sensitive topics: racism, misogyny, conflict and class are all key themes in several films on this list. Titled after the thirteenth amendment to the US constitution, which prohibited slavery, 13th is one of the most powerful of all the films we profile here. It meticulously scrutinises the stark connection between race and mass imprisonment in America. Even more fascinatingly, it dissects the role of big business in the prison system and how legislation is used to further discriminate against minorities.

Virunga

Virunga is another animal welfare film set in Africa. Made by British writer and director Orlando Von Eisendel, the film investigates the activities of a UK oil company in the Congo. Virunga caused political upheaval and an angry response from the World Wildlife Fund due to the threat to gorillas it exposed. It’s an example of Netflix’s willingness to fund challenging content when they deem it necessary - old fashioned activist journalism at its best.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Perhaps the most politically controversial film of all, Winter on Fire is an on-the-ground take on the 2014 Ukrainian revolution that broadly sympathises with the protestors. The far right’s role in the riots is left out, with sharper focus given to the peaceful students and civil rights movement that subsequently developed. Viewers will have to make their own minds up on the question of balance, but it’s undeniably a sobering experience.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

One of the best biographical docs on Netflix, What Happened… combines archive footage and poignant interviews with Nina Simone’s family and friends. It’s unsurprisingly entertaining: the much-lamented singer-songwriter remains one of the most fascinating musical characters of the 20th century. Stylistically, the film follows the same pattern as multiple other documentaries on Netflix, but Simone’s legendary wit makes it stand out.