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10 Eye-Opening ‘Vocativ’ Documentaries

by Nolan Moore
fact checked by Jamie Frater

If you’re a regular reader, it’ll come as no surprise to you that we’re pretty big fans of documentaries.

Launched in 2013, Vocativ is a news site that scours the deep web for compelling stories, and the result is some pretty amazing documentaries. Vocativ docs are bite-size chunks of info that tell some truly incredible tales, usually in less than 10 minutes. They’re short, concise, and totally eye-opening.

10Blood Rites: The Price Of Fame

Voodoo Stardom in Uganda

Everybody wants a shot at superstardom, but not everyone wants to make all the necessary sacrifices. The actors and athletes who claw their way to the top are almost always the people who sweat, bleed, and give everything up for a crack at fame.

Or they decapitate chickens. That works, too. At least, it does according to Hotman Predator.

A Ugandan musician (who might want to reconsider his stage name), Predator wants to become the next big thing in East African pop music. And that’s where witchcraft, or “doggo,” comes in handy. According to Blood Rites: The Price of Fame, if you want to make it big in Uganda, you need to visit your local witch doctor.

Only by appeasing the spirits with sacrifice can you hope to achieve A-list celebrity status. And that involves blood . . . a whole lot of blood. Be aware, sensitive viewers might want to skip this one since things get really gory near the end. If you can’t make it through this video, you probably shouldn’t try to become a Ugandan superstar.

9Prison Pageant

The Prison Pageant: Colombia’s Sexiest Inmates Fight for The Crown

Over the past few years, Vocativ has produced quite a few prison documentaries, like The Real Orange is the New Black. This five-minute film captures several touching moments, like an interview with a pregnant inmate and a glimpse at life in the laundry. Despite its short running time, it’s a pretty poignant look at the drab world inside the California prison system, complete with orange jumpsuits and eggshell white walls.

Life in a South American prison, on the other hand, is a little bit more colorful.

In the feature documentary Prison Pageant, we get a wild look at one of the craziest beauty contests on the planet, one that takes place behind bars. In Colombia’s largest female prison, contestants from each cell block battle it out to become the prison’s number one beauty queen. With the help of a volunteer stylist, thieves and drug dealers wear elegant gowns and answer questions like: “What have you learned in prison?”

The whole thing is incredibly surreal. Performers dance while dressed as princesses or cats. For some inexplicable reason, someone is sporting a Goofy costume, and the decorations are like something ripped out of the world’s weirdest fairy tale. (Keep an eye out for the deer-riding gnomes.) All the while, the audience is cheering like it’s some sort of sporting event. A Colombian prison might be one of the worst places on Earth, but at least the inmates know how to put on a show.

8The Masked Men Of Lucha Libre

Every nation has its own particular combat skill. England is big on bare-knuckle boxing, South Korea is wild about tae kwon do, and the folks in Tijuana, Mexico, like to spend their evenings watching masked men battle furry dwarves and guys dressed like Shrek. And you know what? It’s awesome.

The Masked Men of Lucha Libre takes an intimate look at one of Mexico’s craziest sports. If you’re not familiar with lucha libre, it’s one big morality play with plenty of flips, kicks, and body slams. The Tecnicos (good guys) duke it out with the Rudos (bad guys) in a jaw-dropping display of athleticism. While their costumes look kind of goofy, their moves are majorly impressive.

The film particularly focuses on Damien 666 and Bestia 666, a father-and-son team who, as you might’ve guessed, are the bad guys. When they step into the ring, this demonic duo look like rejects from a KISS cover band, but really, they’re just normal guys, performing in the ring to feed their families. But it’s more than just a job. Wrestling is in their blood . . . and you can see the impact all over their bodies.

Damien is covered in grotesque scars, courtesy of the barbed wire and glass that often show up in the ring. When he learned his son wanted to become a wrestler, Damien admits, “I cried because I knew all of this, these hits, these scars, all of this, was going to pass to him.”

Even if the battles are scripted, this is no easy job. The blood is real, the promoters are often crooked, and these guys train like genuine UFC fighters. When they fight in front of the screaming crowd, these masked men put their MMA counterparts to shame.

7Camouflage Is The New Black

Caracal: Inside Israel’s Co-Ed Combat Corps.

In most countries, the role of “combat soldier” is usually filled by men. Things are changing in the US, though, where the government recently announced it was going to fully integrate women into combat roles by 2016. Yet the US is just catching up with the times. In the Middle East, women have been fighting in the field for quite a while now.

Take the Female Peshmerga Fighters, for example. These all-female units train with AK-47s and RPGs so they can defend Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS. However, if you want to see something even more impressive, check out Caracal, the Israeli co-ed unit. Here, men and women train, march, and fight together.

In Camouflage is the New Black, Vocativ follows the Caracal troops as they work along the Sinai border. Men and women go on patrols together and practice with each other on the firing range. And of course, if an enemy force decided to attack, all of them would rush straight into the action—gender doesn’t matter when you know how to operate a machine gun.

6The Material Boys Of South Africa

South Africa’s Material Boys

We’ve previously discussed several fascinating subcultures, like the Tokyo Rockabillies and the Elevator Enthusiasts, but perhaps the flashiest one of all can be found parading down the streets of South Africa. They call themselves “Izikhothane,” a word that means “bragging,” and these men take their image very seriously.

These “material boys” are crazy about clothes, the gaudier and pricier the better. They buy the most expensive shirts and shoes they can afford and then take to the streets in their flamboyant glory. Decked out in Armani T-shirts and Sfarzo Couture jeans, these men want to give off an appearance of power and wealth, a move that’s especially startling in a country where many of their friends are unemployed.

Of course, if they were just walking around in brightly colored clothing, they wouldn’t be all that interesting. The Izikhothane are so fascinating thanks to their epic showdowns. Rival gangs square off in public parks and talk smack to their opponents, mocking their clothes and insulting their taste. Then the dancing begins.

The gang members start shaking and grooving . . . all while destroying their beautiful clothes. Surrounded by cheering crowds, they smash their shoes on the ground, dance atop expensive food, and, according to one concerned woman, even “tear up their . . . money.” It’s one crazy spectacle and the ultimate fashion statement, buying costly clothes and then tossing them aside. They’re shaking their collective fist in poverty’s face, and that’s earning them praise from their peers and scorn from their parents.

5The Busiest Morgue On The Mexican Border

The Busiest Morgue on the Mexican Border

It’s probably safe to assume working in a morgue isn’t a lot of fun, especially if you’re on the Mexican-American border. Every year, thousands of people cross into the US from Mexico only to wind up in some of the deadliest places imaginable. As border agents step up security, smugglers are taking immigrants out into the very worst parts of the desert, hoping to avoid any guards. Unfortunately, that means hundreds of people die every year, victims of dehydration.

A lot of those bodies wind up at the Pima County Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. Dubbed “the busiest morgue on the Mexican border,” the medical center has seen over 2,000 bodies pass through its storage shelves (and this documentary was released early in 2014). Over 800 of these bodies are unidentified. They’re people without futures, people without names.

As the Vocativ team explores the medical center, the camera lingers on the rows and rows of body bags, bulging with fragments of skulls and spines. During several interviews, the medical experts explain how some of the bodies are brought in mummified and how they were forced to build an extra cold room to handle all the incoming corpses. However, perhaps the most haunting shot is in the very last scene, as we see what eventually becomes of the bodies that were never identified.

4Adventures In Nollywood

Adventures in Nollywood: How to Make a Film in Three Days

Sure, Hollywood has the million-dollar budgets and the big-time celebrities, but when it comes to making a movie in less than a week, Nollywood is the king of the world. Second only to India, the Nigerian film industry produces more movies than any other nation. Seriously, these people churn out 40 movies a week.

Intrigued by their speedy shoots, Vocativ went to Nigeria with a screenplay in hand, hoping to film the making of a Nollywood movie. The result was a short yet fascinating look at the world of African filmmaking, an industry that believes in making a movie as quickly as possible. Sorry, Richard Linklater, you’re not welcome here.

Shooting a film in Nigeria poses all sorts of problems that Hollywood moviemakers probably never deal with. While American directors take electricity for granted, the folks in Nollywood are forced to drag around their own generators as Nigeria has some serious power problems. And thanks to their small budgets, Nollywood crews are unable to build sets. Instead, they borrow nearby houses or film in public on the fly. Making things worse are the insane traffic jams. In one scene, it takes Nigerian producer Eke Ume two hours to travel just 30 kilometers (18 mi).

Sure, Nollywood films aren’t great when it comes to camera quality or sound design, and none of the actors are earning anything close to what Johnny Depp rakes in. Still, there’s something incredibly impressive about finishing a movie in 29 hours despite all the obstacles in the way. These filmmakers have an incredible work ethic, and you’ve got to wonder what they could do with a little more time and money.

3The House Where China’s Babies Are Abandoned

The house is princess pink, covered in smiling cartoons and little red hearts, but despite its appearance, this little shack is one of the saddest buildings in the world. It’s a baby hatch, located in the city of Jinan. There are over 30 similar houses scattered around China, but these are no fairytale cottages. These are where parents come to leave their children.

China has a major problem with parents abandoning their babies. According to the narrator, around 10,000 babies are left on the streets each year. Most don’t make it.

Hoping to solve this horrible problem, the Chinese government has erected baby hatches around the country, where parents can leave their children in safety. Just step inside, set your baby in a crib, and push a button. After you leave, a nurse arrives and carries the child to an orphanage. Sure, it sounds simple, but just watch that mother in the first part of the show. There’s nothing easy about giving up your baby.

Most parents who use baby hatches are so poor that they seriously can’t afford to care for the child, like the father interviewed near the end of the film. He spent his entire life savings trying to help his child, a baby born with a host of health issues, but he couldn’t keep up with the hospital bills. But if you think that’s awful, just wait till the end for a stunning revelation that’s heartbreakingly horrible.

2The Village Of Stolen Kidneys

The Village of Stolen Kidneys

In the past, we’ve read about surgeons who make a living cheating people out of their organs, like Amit “Dr. Horror” Kumar, an Indian doctor who duped impoverished workers into selling their kidneys. But today, we aren’t focusing on the bad guys. Instead, we’re looking at the victims who live in The Village of Stolen Kidneys.

Of the 300 people in Hokshe, Nepal, about 70 have been tricked into selling their kidneys. And it’s easy to see why they’re willing to part with their organs. The villagers of Hokshe are incredibly poor. There’s no electricity in town, and the villagers cook over open fires, in homes without carpet or furniture. When “middlemen” show up with promises of cash, the temptation is impossible to ignore, especially when they’re so hungry.

Even worse, these crooks use all sorts of tricks to con villagers into giving up their kidneys, including straight-up lies about human anatomy. Once the unsuspecting farmer hands over an organ, he only gets about half of the promised cash.

That’s not the only repercussion of selling your pound of flesh. The Village of Stolen Kidneys focuses on Ram Kumar Dai, a Hoskhe villager whose decision to sell his kidney has affected everything from his health to his social life. As he tells his story, Dai’s face is full of regret, and eventually, he walks away from the interview, overcome with emotion. Like the others in Hokshe, he’s caught in a system where the upper classes use the poor as their own personal organ bank.

1Slumdog Editor

Slumdog Editor: Indian Newspaper Written and Produced by Street Kids

Vocativ has released quite a few documentaries focusing on India, from the unsettling Interview with a Hangman to the shocking Slumming It: Tourism in India’s Shanty Towns. However, we’re going to end this list on a more positive note and feature an inspirational story about the world’s coolest newspaper.

Based in New Delhi, Balaknama is a broadsheet run exclusively by kids. Two of the paper’s star reporters are only 14, and the chief editor of the entire operation is a 16-year-old girl. That’s especially impressive considering India is one of the world’s worst countries to be a woman.

The kids at Balaknama aren’t writing about celebrity gossip or local sports teams. These are teenagers with a mission. They want to shine a light on the lives of India’s street children, the kids who wash cars, cook food, and comb through garbage. These teenage journalists interview boys and girls suffering from drug addiction and struggling in hellish conditions, hoping to give these kids a voice and tell their stories to the world.

fact checked by Jamie Frater