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Banksy Does New York
Photograph: supplied, Madman EntertainmentBanksy Does New York

The best documentaries you can watch for free on Kanopy

Arm yourself with a digital library card and you can mainline these top-notch docos for free on streaming service Kanopy

Written by
Stephen A Russell
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Documentaries are a brilliant way to ride out the lockdown while opening your mind to fascinating figures, communities and cultures. And the good news is you don’t even need to sign your dollars away to pay streaming services.

As long as you have a library card (you can sign up easily online) you can dive headlong into the brilliance of totally free movie archive Kanopy. While there’s usually a ten-film monthly limit, a bunch of films have been unchained, credit-free, during these interesting times.

With that in mind, here are 11 of our favourite docos that will take you on an incredible adventure without leaving your sofa.

*Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers, please note that this feature contains images of a deceased elder.

Free Kanopy documentaries

From humble coastal UK street artist to one of the world's most famous men you've never actually seen, Banksy is an enigma. His works of politically charged art, whether sold in a gallery or sprayed on the side of a house, can now command obscene amounts of money. Chris Moukarbel’s rollicking doco Banksy Does New York follows the hysteria as the mysterious figure descended on the Big Apple for one month in 2013. Banksy produced artworks daily all over the city that never sleeps and teased them on Instagram, and the hordes stampeded. From his biggest fans to the totally bemused, this giant-sized pop culture treasure hunt is magnificent to witness.

The year might conjure dystopian images best avoided right now, but panic not. Midnight Oil 1984 has very little to do with Orwell, and everything to do with the beloved Aussie band. At a make-or-break moment in their musical career, regular music video director Ray Argall captured their public gigs and their innermost thoughts on candid camera. Snatched during the national tour of fifth album Red Sails in the Sunset, the film captures the tension that comes from divided loyalties. Frontman Peter Garrett simultaneously ran for a federal Senate seat with the Nuclear Disarmament Party, causing something an internal explosion that nearly ended the band.

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While we’re on the subject of outstanding Australian music docos, few could hope to surpass the sublime beauty of this tribute, honouring the loud and proud songline of the late, great Indigenous Australian musician Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Gurrumul was born blind, and his parents lovingly resigned themselves to a life lived within the boundaries of Elcho Island in far northeast Arnhem Land. Instead, he soared to international stardom with Yothu Yindi, Saltwater Band and then his solo career until the public glare became too much. His family have given permission for his name to stay in use. Make sure you have hankies, but also prepare to snort-laugh at the shocking arrogance of an oblivious Sting.

Behind every great woman, there's another great woman. Lynda Carter’s dream casting as DC superhero Wonder Woman was also a game-changing break for her stuntwoman double, Jeannie Epper. Likewise Lucy Lawless relied on the brilliance of Zoe Bell to tag-team as Xena: Warrior Princess. Great friends, Epper and Bell put up with all sorts of nuisance in male-dominated Tinseltown before hitting the big time, as the empowering Double Dare shows, with their indomitable spirit attracting praise from Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg.

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The term 'living legend' gets thrown around far too readily for our liking. Still, it certainly applies to the punk matriarch of British fashion, Dame Vivienne Westwood. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist traces a radically creative life. From her post-war childhood through dating Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren to forging a fashion empire stretching across five decades from her Worlds End Shop on Chelsea's King's Road, there's never a dull moment. It's a fitting tribute even Kate Moss is clearly in awe.

Unlike the cranky Jean-Luc Godard, the late Agnès Varda – every bit as influential in the French New Wave World – never lost her puckish good humour and abundant joie de vivre. Her penultimate work, the gorgeous Faces Places, bridges generations from boomer to millennial by pairing her with kindred spirit JR. A photographer and paste-up artist, he joins the filmmaker on a road-trip around rural France, creating large-scale artworks of the everyday folks they meet on the way. Beautiful stuff.

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Actor-turned That Sugar Film director Damon Gameau would get so freaked out reading about the dire news surrounding climate change that he shut down and blocked it out. But that wasn't an option with a young daughter to raise, so 2040 is his solution. Instead of focusing on all the doom and gloom, he travelled the world (carbon-offsetting his flights) talking to the experts about real-world solutions that are helping make a difference right now. It’s the least stressful way to tackle the big questions of today.

Scooping best doco at both the Sydney Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival, Catherine Scott’s Backtrack Boys takes a big-hearted look at an unlikely hero. Bernie Shakeshaft is a former jackaroo from the Northern Territory who, thanks to his Aboriginal mentors, now champions an unusual kind of social work in rural NSW. Teaching troubled lads to look after the land and one another, he has ample help from his boundless energy, prize-winning sheepdogs. His latest wards Zac, Russell and Tyson are a handful, but this film's a big bundle of occasionally sweary joy.

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If you’re worried about tummy spread in the coming months, it might be time to revisit one of the biggest blockbuster docos of the century in Morgan Spurlock's Oscar-nominated Super Size Me. Not unlike Gameau's approach in That Sugar Film, he sets about proving that fast food is bad for you by eating way, way too much of it. Using lots of amusingly animated examples and an insanely gung-ho attitude, he lays bare the unpalatable truth about the sugar, fat and salt content of Maccas and the like. As easily accessible as any Michael Moore doco, it's a hilariously unnerving horror story.

If you wanna unspool some seriously hardcore nostalgia, pop into Rewind This!, a barnstorming biography of the humble VHS tape that stretches from its Betamax-beating heyday all the way through to near-total obsolescence. Although DVDs have taken over (and now face being discarded themselves), director Josh Johnson and some adorably dorky talking heads will defend the low-res, high-chance-of-farking-up medium to the end. How easy it is to forget the magically democratising power they had, ruling the '80s and bringing movies directly to our homes long before Netflix (or the internet) was a thing.

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Henrique Cirne-Lima and Josue Pellot’s I Am the Queen is a low-key look at the thriving Puerto Rican trans beauty pageant scene in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighbourhood in 2010, as trans women Bianca, Julissa and Jolizza prepare to compete under the mentorship of Ginger Valdez. Generously sharing their hopes and dreams, the importance of family support biological or logical, and the challenges they've faced along the way, these three are worth all the snaps. Gotta love the strapline: “A Queen is more than her gowns, crowns and pronouns.” Yasss queens.

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