I love documentaries. I sat slack-jawed through Grizzly Man, fought back tears watching Restrepo, pondered endlessly with Man on Wire, was inspired by Murderball, and was totally awestruck by The Fog of War. But I’ve never found anything as relentlessly raw, unforgiving, and endlessly entertaining as the short documentary films on the YouTube channel Vice TV.
Vice specializes in “unabashed depravity and going to places we don’t belong.” That’s an understatement. The material here can be so literally unbelievable you can forget that what you’re watching is reality.
There’s a tendency for the documentaries to dwell on negative issues—but it’s admirable given Vice’s efforts to bring attention to situations where help is desperately needed. To see all the suffering that occurs everyday in seemingly god-forsaken places on Earth is vexing, but there are plenty of stories—remarkably riveting ones—that need a voice. Vice provides that voice.
Vice has been filming documentaries for two decades, but until recently there hasn’t been a unified forum in which to view them. Thankfully, that’s changed. Now, Vice is adding new documentary videos almost every day, and I’m routinely blown away by the sheer intrepidity shown by these guerilla filmmakers.
Here are five of my current favorite offerings from Vice (videos included):
Teenage Heroin Epidemic
As my introduction to Vice, Teenage Heroin Epidemic blew me away with its unapologetic approach to documenting the lives of young heroin addicts in Swansea, a once vibrant but now impoverished industrial city in South Wales. These kids are complete slaves to heroin and crack.
The worst part is that the hopeless addicts of Swansea don’t seem to want any help. They’re trapped in the cycle and couldn’t care less. It’s depressing to say the least, but it’s worth a watch—if only to give some much-needed perspective.
Inside North Korea
North Korea is the world’s most isolated country: it’s nearly impossible to access, and if you get in somehow, every movement you make is closely monitored by government officials. After being denied entry to North Korea at the South Korean DMZ, someone recommends that the Vice crew bribe Chinese border patrol agents for a pass into North Korea. It works.
The resulting video shot over the course of the next few days is very, very weird. It’s contentious, scary, and almost unbelievable. It’s also utterly insane. If you’ve seen the Lisa Ling documentary on North Korea, this is just like that, times ten.
The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia
It may seem as if the filmmakers were going for shock value when titling this piece, but no, it’s accurate. People eat people in Liberia. Often. And these guys get it on camera. (It’s deliberately limited footage, but it’s there.)
Eating people is part of a pre-battle ritual for warlords and their child soldiers. They believe it makes them invincible to bullets, among other qualities. The stories captured in this particular documentary are so unbelievable, so heinous, and so remarkable, that I can’t even begin to go into them here. Just know that even though Charles Taylor is locked up, other sinister warlords have gladly taken his place.
If you choose to watch, you’ve been warned. Keep in mind this isn’t some superfluous, wanton Hollywood interpretation. This shit is as real as it gets.
Suicide Forest in Japan
Exceptionally powerful, this documentary follows a geologist working near Mt. Fuji at Aokigahara Park in Japan, a place notorious as the suicide capital of the world. Each year, between 100 and 200 Japanese citizens take their own lives there, spurred by the popular Japanese novel Kuroi Jukai, in which a young lover takes his life in this particular forest because of a broken heart. Suicides in the forest have become so rampant that the Japanese Yakuza sends people into the forest on an annual basis to loot the bodies.
The geologist profiled in the film is a bit of a sage. He’s wise and grounded, and even though he doesn’t speak English (Vice films are subtitled, regardless of the language), his voice is full of compassion and character. He’s genuinely disturbed by the death he encounters on an almost daily basis at his job, but he deals with it, and with admirable grace. Even if the subject matter seems too macabre for you, the video is worth watching just to hear this guy talk.
Conflict Minerals, Rebels, and Child Soldiers in Congo
Did you know that over five million people have died as a result of the Congolese Civil War? Five million. Keep in mind that no other conflict has had a death toll that high since World War II.
The Congo has been raped of its resources ever since the days of Belgian imperialism, but now it’s not just about diamonds. Were you aware that there’s a 90 percent chance that the cell phone in your pocket contains organic material mined in the Congo? It’s called Coltan, and it’s a component of nearly every portable electronic device known to man. And most of the world’s supply is located in? Yeah.
While international efforts have been somewhat effective in curbing child labor in the country, it’s still a major problem. And while the U.N. does have a presence there, they’re pretty much confined to their own facilities, as venturing out becomes incredibly dangerous, incredibly fast. Despite this, the maniacs at Vice give it a shot, and barely make it out alive.
The next time you’re meandering aimlessly through the endless conduits of the Internet, fire up a little Vice TV. It’s important to realize the most of the world doesn’t look like your city, or any place in the United States, for that matter. Most of the world is fucked up beyond belief. But after watching Vice, you’ll have no choice but to believe it.