Founded in 2005, Reddit has since lived up to its self-proclaimed status as “the front page of the internet.” Its communities — or subreddits — center around even the most absurd and obscure subjects. Reddit is a one-stop-shop for the best the internet has to offer. Subreddits are many things, including forums and social networks. But above all, they are content aggregators — places where people can share what they find elsewhere on the internet.
/r/Documentaries, then, is a subreddit where Redditors share their favorite documentaries. In the old days of Reddit, site administrators assembled a list of default subreddits. These default subreddits made up the front page of every new Reddit user. As one of these default subreddits, /r/Documentaries gained a huge following.
The default subreddit system no longer exists, but the effects of this early exposure remain strong. It is only thanks to the work of an active moderator team that the subreddit stays as high-quality as it always has. With 15.6 million subscribers, making it the 34th largest subreddit, this is no small task.
The rules enforced by the moderators ensure that every post links to a streaming video. With very few exceptions, the links are to YouTube or Vimeo. Every now and again, a user will post a link to a paid streaming service like Netflix or Hulu, but this is rare. Sometimes users will even share links to the official website of the documentary. No matter the web address, every link leads to a page that hosts its own video — no embedding or downloading here.
Depending on how you browse Reddit, your experience will vary. I found that the mobile app “Reddit is fun” offered several advantages that the desktop experience lacked. The desktop version is missing the sidebar, a vital source of information. On the mobile app, the sidebar allows users to search by topic — perfect for making a quick decision. Topics include “arts,” “history,” “science (hard),” “science (social),” “war,” and more. The sidebar also has links to make requests, in case there’s a documentary you remember but need help finding.
The desktop version of the subreddit contains much of this same information, but it is harder to find. Much of this information and search functionality is in the monthly pinned post at the top of the feed. Both the desktop and mobile versions allow for unlimited scrolling, which is why searching by topic is so useful.
One area where the desktop site shines above the mobile app is video embedding. All YouTube and Vimeo links — again, the majority of the films linked — play in Reddit without redirecting. If you’d prefer to view the videos on the hosting site, you can easily click a link to get there. I much prefer to stay on a single page, which /r/Documentaries and the Reddit platform enable me to do.
Another useful approach for finding the perfect doc is to sort by “top” from the dropdown bar above the posts. Reddit relies on an upvote-downvote system to determine the order posts appear in. Sorting by “top” puts posts with the most upvotes (the most popular posts) upfront. Using this sorting method also asks you to pick a time range — “today,” “this week,” “this month,” “this year,” or “all time.” Sorting by “top” and selecting “all-time” will bring up some of the best documentaries in recent years.
Finding the Right Film
Emphasis on “recent.” One problem with this subreddit is a bias towards films from the last five years. The documentaries on this site do not represent the fact that this genre is as old as film itself. With only a few exceptions, this community tends to promote recent films more than it digs up hidden gems. Like the IMDB “Top 250” list, this list says more about the interests of 18-29 year old American males (like yours truly!) than it does about actual quality.
This focus on recent films might be a result of another issue with the site — namely, the political agendas behind many of the posts. Many post titles are opinions about the topic rather than statements about the film. This is somewhat unavoidable with a genre like documentary. Luckily, the moderators work hard to avoid picking ideological sides. Both the left-wing anti-corporate crowd and the right-wing manosphere have a presence here.
Even with those two issues, I found hours of amazing content on /r/Documentaries. I indulged my true-crime obsession with “Child Killer,” a five-part docuseries about four murders in Michigan in 1976. Although only parts one and four are on YouTube, a link in the video description led me to all five parts. This is a common trend for this subreddit — documentaries are often posted in parts, which take work to seek out.
“Child Killer” fit right in with much of the true-crime genre which is so popular lately. Finding content in this niche not on paid streaming sites is exactly what this subreddit is for. “Child Killer” held its weight against any Netflix or Hulu original like “The Bundy Tapes” or “The Family.”
After terrifying myself with that sordid serial killer story, I sought out a lighter film. “Lone Star Skaters” seemed a perfect fit. This 2019 film about two strangers skateboarding across Texas runs a mere 21 minutes. /r/Documentaries features many films of this length, drawn from half-hour TV slots. This runtime diversity makes the subreddit ideal for casual or hardcore viewers alike.
“Lone Star Skaters” was a nice palette cleanser after the grisly “Child Killer.” Much less my cup of tea, though. I’m more of a blood-and-guts guy than the cheerful, quirky type. Viewers seeking some low-stakes inspiration will love it, though.
After these two recently posted docs, I decided to sort by “top” of “all time.” I found one documentary posted twice on the front page — “An Open Secret,” a film on Hollywood child abuse. Once again, this was up more up my alley than some of the lighter films. Though the film was well-made and eye-opening, I found it strange that it appears twice on the front page. Moderators could do a better job of filtering for reposts.
Many other documentaries find themselves reposted on /r/Documentaries with some regularity. A doc about social media and another about assisted suicide both showed up twice. This, plus some lectures on the front page, suggests leniency by the moderators for posts with many upvotes. I don’t see this as a bad thing, but I can see why some might object — especially if they disapprove of the subject matter.
Another top post of all time was a documentary called “The Panama Papers.” Named after the corruption scandal explored in the doc, this post was notable for linking to Hulu. Few posts lead to paid streaming services, and those that do are often about hot-button issues of the day. While I’ve seen this film before, and so felt unbothered by the paywall, I can imagine feeling differently for a documentary I hadn’t seen. Besides, don’t Hulu and Netflix originals get enough social media promotion as it is?
My general impression of /r/Documentaries is very positive. The fact that most links lead to YouTube or Vimeo rather than a paid site would be enough on its own to earn two thumbs up. Whether on desktop or mobile, Reddit’s neat interface simplifies your search immensely. The massive community comprising this subreddit ensures a constant stream of content. While mods don’t always enforce the rules to a T, they manage to keep the community thriving.
This subreddit does have downsides, though. I had a hard time finding movies older than my phone. I saw far too many lectures and interviews despite these being against the rules. The “top” of “all time” list left a lot to be desired, not even coming close to what its name promises.
Nonetheless, this subreddit serves its intended purpose with great success. /r/Documentaries is an incredible resource for someone with an itch for the genre but no way to scratch it. This subreddit is my new go-to tool for finding content when I’m in a documentary mood.