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The five cult documentaries that you need to see

These films are essential viewing for anyone interested in the edges, the outliers and the outsiders

This article isn’t for dumb baby losers who have only made a surface effort to get into cult documentary film and “liked” Louis Theroux on Facebook. A crash course in cult requires repeat viewings of Paris is Burning (1990) and Grey Gardens (1975). Not until you can spell O-P-U-L-E-N-C-E in the same strident tone as a drag ball announcer and S-T-A-U-N-C-H in the Long Island drawl of Little Edie Bouvier have you earned your stripes and deserve to move on to the next round. This is that next round. These five documentaries have much in common: they’re about the outliers, but that’s precisely what makes them so undeniably cool. Armed with a base knowledge, graduates of the entry level programme can go on to enjoy a successful career in cult film – after consuming these.


An assembly of ostracised teens band together to survive the streets of 80s Seattle in Streetwise. New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark discovered the kids through a shoot for an article in Life about homeless teens on the streets of America’s most livable city. Fascinated by what she found, Mark, her partner Martin and reporter Cheryl McCall spent weeks slowly gaining the trust of these teens to properly tell their story for a documentary. Thirteen-year-old Tiny, the lynchpin of the group, was a prostitute – something her mother incredulously deems “a phase she’s going through” on camera. Mark followed Tiny’s story for years after the documentary came out, and was working on a follow-up film called Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell, set for release this year. Sadly, Mark passed away last year and the sequel has been put on ice.


This is a good one to start with, only clocking in at a meal-spanning 16 minutes. There are thousands of films made about the 80s, Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! being the latest to tap into the 80s keg and suck it dry. You won’t find a more accurate portrait of the time, however, then you will by reliving a Judas Priest concert with pre-gaming teens in a Maryland parking lot. It’s like a scene plucked from Detroit Rock City (1999). A band at the height of mainstream fame mixed with diehard fans that would put Beliebers to shame, you can’t not get excited about Judas Priest watching Mullets of Hell spout praise for their idols while answering questions like “Are you fucked up?” with “Ehhhh, half and half.”

HOBO (1992)

Ever felt like quitting your job and hitching a ride to… anywhere? Well, I advise living it vicariously before pulling the trigger with director John T Davis’ Hobo. Beargrease (a name you’d choose too, if you needed an alias on the fly) “catches the Westbound” from Minneapolis to Seattle. He rides the rails for free, and Irish director Davis tracks his movements 2,000 miles across the US of A. Beargrease narrates and philosophizes their way through the gorgeous scenery of a middle America that few tourists get to experience. This visual travelogue is such an important tribute to those weirdos on the margins of society, and does better than any tourism board to promote US rail travel. Plus, Beargrease has a few words of wisdom that, er, bear repeating.


Streets that slice through New York and its outlying boroughs used to act as invisible border lines for the gangs that operated within them. Hostile towards their neighbours, turf wars were common. Patches and symbols that adorned clothing, your “colours”, were what signalled to others where your loyalty lay. This documentary dishes out rare footage of African-American and Puerto Rican South Bronx gangs from the 70s, updated in the 90s when the filmmakers decided to revisit the gang members. It’s the perfect accompaniment for anyone casually obsessed with The Warriors, Walter Hill’s 1979 flick about the famous Hoe Avenue peace meeting. There have been other documentaries to peel back the lid on NY gang warfare, such as 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979) and last year’s Rubble Kings (2015). For all its companions, this one is the true OG.


Shown on public access channels to an audience of probably tens in 1986, All American High was never given its due. Director Keva Rosenfeld slavishly documented an entire year in the lives of sun-kissed high school students from Torrance, California, only for it to collect dust. Told from the POV of a hard-body Finnish exchange student who wants to make Cali her bitch, Rikki Rauhala, All American High is the real Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Outdated “marriage” classes, pep rallies and year-end bashes flavour her all-American experience, and the audience is duly shown (or reminded, depending on your age) just how little you needed to coast through high school in the 80s. Rosenfeld chanced upon the doc while cleaning up his garage years later and decided to track down the documentary’s subjects, leading to a monstrously satisfying conclusion. All American High: Revisited was released last year and allows the film’s main characters to reflect on their buffoonery decades later.