Meet the locals who would die for Mavericks, kidnap for revolution and rob banks for Batkid via these stranger-than-fiction docs.

(Image via Getty)

We get it. These days you want to escape reality.

When your routine takes on the repetition of Groundhog Day and you feel trapped in the same day over and over, it’s tempting to check out. Why settle for the banality of reality, when fiction offers 31 flavors of larger-than-life? Whether it’s the zany characters or the impossible adventures, you crave something more.

But before re-watching that sci-fi saga, give non-fiction a chance. This list of documentaries on Bay Area locals and local happenings are magical moments in history when the real world was as crazy as fiction. Let these films serve as delightful reminders that we don’t always have to step out of reality to enter a different world.

Twelve Pianos

It all starts with artist/musician Mauro Ffortissimo hauling a battered grand piano out to the San Mateo bluffs to play for the whales. This escalates into a series of guerilla acts, spiriting cast-off pianos (under the cover of misty mornings) onto beaches and into cypress groves along the California coastline.

The project gives a glorious second life to cast-off pianos as world-class musicians and novices alike come to tickle the ebonies and ivories in the midst of nature (although the city isn’t such a fan). Expect scenic cinematography with some gorgeous aerial shots.

“Twelve Pianos showcases everyday superstars who walk among us, with a deep passion for the arts that will not fit neatly into a box,” the documentary’s website describes.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

Discovering Mavericks

The Mavericks surf break summons wave riders worldwide. The spot, located a quarter-mile offshore from Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Bluff, is home to mammoth walls of water. Why do surfers continue to go out there — even when they know not everyone comes back? This documentary portrays both the draw and the risk for surfers in this unforgiving but breathtaking terrain. It captures its historical significance too, particularly Jeff Clark—the lone local surfer who pioneered its massive crests before it was known to the world.

So seek to understand this place in all its peril and splendor. Imagine the adrenaline surge of dropping down the face of one of these 50-foot watery monstrosities. Picture the white water aftermath of a wave chasing your board with the strength of an avalanche.

Watch it for free on Youtube. For more material on Mavericks, also be sure to check out One Winter Story and Riding Giants.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All

What happens when one man’s quest for identity takes a sharp turn into the spine-chilling side of our nation’s most enduring criminal mystery? As Gary L. Stewart seeks answers about the dad who abandoned him as an infant in an apartment stairwell, he stumbles on a horrifying discovery. The evidence he’s uncovering seems to point to the fact that his father led a secret life as Northern California’s dreaded Zodiac Killer.

His morbid fascination moves him onward: there’s his dad’s handwriting, which seems to match the ciphered letters the Zodiac Killer sent to the press. There’s partial fingerprint evidence. There’s an eerily similar police sketch… But this recent four-part, true-crime docu-series also asks another question: When does the tireless search for truth slip over the edge into a distorted obsession?

Watch it on FX Networks.

Netflix vs the World

Anyone remember making the trek to video-rental stores for your evening’s entertainment? When you used to pick up plastic cases containing (easily scratchable) rainbow-silver, donut-like disks called DVDs?… How about those slim plastic bricks we called VHS cassettes? Since those times, streaming has seen the collapse of the video rental industry. But how exactly did we get there?

This is the tale of the company that rose as champion when Blockbuster bit the dust, taking limited copies and late fees with it. This is the origin story behind the once unknown business we know now as Netflix. How it once consisted of DVDs stored out of an old bank vault in redwood-ringed Scotts Valley — before traveling to the very heart of the Silicon Valley.

Watch it on Amazon.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley

This is the cautionary tale of Elizabeth Holmes, a woman who dropped out of Stanford to create a multibillion-dollar company in the world of blood testing. Theranos, headquartered in Palo Alto, promised a bright future with its compact blood testing device and comprehensive analysis. The plan was to get it into homes across America. But then the media’s healthcare darling turned villain.

The Inventor: Out For Blood In Silicon Valley lays bare a tender vein in our local healthcare industry. Holmes lied about the accuracy of her machines, deceived investors, and was well on her way to putting thousands of patients at risk of misdiagnosis. How deep does the cover-up go? Discover the bloody details behind the scenes: burner phones, investigative journalism… all the good stuff.

Watch it on HBO. Also check out our interview with the investigative journalist who exposed the deception.

General Magic

In 1990, Marc Porat described his vision for a tiny computer and personal object he called a Pocket Crystal: “It must be beautiful. It must offer the kind of personal satisfaction that a fine piece of jewelry brings. It will have a perceived value even when it’s not being used. It will offer the comfort of a touchstone, the tactile satisfaction of a seashell, the enchantment of a crystal. Once you use it you won’t be able to live without it.”

Porat used to be co-founder of a secretive startup called General Magic, lauded as “the most influential Silicon Valley company no one has ever heard of.” He and his team intended to create a pocket-sized super computer long before smartphone technology existed. The film allows a peak into our local past with rare archival footage revealing Silicon Valley in all its ’90s glory — boxy computers, retro glasses and all.

The director also makes some intriguing parallels between the mindset of General Magic and the company that actually made it: Apple. The two share a recognizable obsession with design, dedication to simplicity and emphasis on user-friendly products.

Watch it on Amazon.

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst

One night, 19-year-old Patty Hearst (granddaughter of American media mogul William Randolph Hearst) was spending a low-key kind of evening in front of the TV, when urban guerilla group Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) broke into her Berkeley apartment and abducted her at gunpoint. Two months later, Hearst resurfaced. With an assault rifle. Robbing a bank. Alongside her kidnappers.

So what the heck happened? After Hearst was finally captured by FBI agents, she spoke of being locked in a dark closet, of being heaped with radical rantings and abuse, of being tossed a flashlight and SLA political tracts to memorize. She insisted that the brainwashing had broken her down and that joining the group had been her only option for survival. Some believed her. Some didn’t.

So victim or villain? Decide for yourself as this six-part series lays out all the facts.

Watch it on Amazon.

“He was destined to be bad. That was the whole point.”

In 1984, the San Francisco Giants fielded a last place team inside the windswept confines of CandleStick Park (“a festival of hypothermia,” as veteran Bay Area sports writer Ray Ratto characterizes it). The vibe was pretty bleak. So the franchise came up with an interesting distraction: trot out an obnoxious mascot that can absorb the angst and ire of their fans—AKA Crazy Crab.

This ESPN short doc within their celebrated 30 for 30 series tells the brief (and somewhat brutal) tale of the mascot that San Franciscans loved to abuse. “You can’t throw stuff at players. They arrest you,” Ratto explains, “but if you are throwing stuff at a crustacean, there’s nothing on the books about that.” Yes, it all goes too far, and you can’t help but feel for Wayne Doba, the very likable professional mime who inhabited the ridiculous foam crab suit (which looks more like a cheeseburger).

For younger fans who only know the glorious trio of championships at AT&T Park and the love of current mascot Lou Seal, this mini-doc clearly conveys just what Torture Ball really is.

Watch via Youtube

Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World

What does it look like to peel 2D comic book characters off their color-coated pages and into the real world? Look no further than Make-A-Wish-Foundation’s project to turn San Francisco into Gotham City for a day. Wish-recipient Miles, a 5-year-old fighting leukemia assumed the alias of Batkid. Accompanied by his trusty sidekick Batman, Miles conquered a series of crime scenarios. He drove around in a (police-escorted) black Lamborghini-turned-Batmobile, defeated The Riddler from robbing a bank, rescued a distressed damsel from the cable car tracks on Russian Hill and foiled a seal-napping (before The Penguin could whisk away the San Francisco Giant’s mascot).

Before Batkid, the largest crowd organized by executive director of the San Francisco Make-A-Wish chapter had been 300 strong… But over 20,000 fans came to cheer Miles on (a number of them even flying into the city). It seemed half the city played a part in crafting these comic book scenarios. This documentary considers why this event went unintentionally viral. Or as the film’s synopsis puts it, “Did Miles need the world for inspiration? Or did the world need Miles?”

Watch it on Amazon.

The Institute

It began with ads stapled to San Francisco telephone poles with curious messages like “Vital Orbit Human Forcefield” and “Trans-time Camera.” Inquisitive folks following the fliers found themselves in an induction room, watching an orientation program for a fictitious organization called the Jejune Institute. They learned of imaginary characters (including a girl who disappeared two decades earlier).

What followed was years of alternate-reality challenges crafted by Oakland-based artist Jeff Hull. Players joined a growing online community and followed clues to “episodes” staged around the city. But paranoia heightened as they began to wonder if they’d become involved in an incredibly elaborate game… or a religious cult. The documentary interviews those involved and reconstructs the experience of participants—of receiving a cryptic message by payphone, of uncovering a propaganda radio broadcast, of wandering a maze-like mausoleum blindfolded while following directions from a golden box, of obeying instructions to don a creepy mask and join a fake protest at Union Square. Just a heads up, though these given examples really did happen, the end of the documentary (like the Institute itself) begins blurring the line between fiction and reality.

Watch it on Amazon Prime.

San Francisco 2.0

For decades, San Francisco has enjoyed a reputation as a hub of counterculture (attracting bohemians, activists and other progressive types). Then the digital gold rush pulled in tech elitists, and the identity of the city began to morph. Has the gentrification of the dot-com boom drowned San Francisco’s true voice? What is “progress” and what are we willing to sacrifice to get it?

HBO’s documentary examines the area’s past and speculates at its future. It recruits the voices of industry representatives, politicians and longtime residents. At its core, it discusses identity and reinvention on a city-scale.

Watch it for free on Youtube.

Blast from the past: Older documentaries still worth seeing

LSD-25 (1967)

If you hadn’t guessed by the title, this documentary is about LSD (or as the film describes it, “Transportation to the fantastic and frightening territory of inner-space, courtesy of the most powerful mind altering drug ever discovered. Destination: Unknown.”)

Really, what better time for a documentary to cover this topic than in the 60s? The film commences with Jonathan King’s song “Round Round,” (a cheerful melody until you listen to the lyrics)—and it only gets better from there. You soon realize that the narrator is LSD himself. His monologues lend an intriguing perspective to the topic. Combined with psychedelic visuals plus footage shot around San Francisco and San Mateo, this film will take you for a wild ride.

Watch it for free on Youtube.

A Trip Down Market Street (1906)

If you could journey back to 1906 San Francisco, what’s the first thing you would do? Might we suggest a ride on the cable car? As you hang off a pole and coast along, witness a reality starkly different from your own. A time when horses shared the road with Ford Model Ts. When suits and ties for men were the rule and not the exception — and hats were absolutely mandatory.

Your trip is filmed by the Miles bothers (Harry, Herbert, Earle and Joe). One of the brothers would have hand-cranked a Bell & Howell camera from its position on the front of the cable car as it traveled from Miles Studios to the Ferry Building. The brothers were blissfully unaware that their studio would remain standing for another four days — before the infamous earthquake brought it and the rest of the city to its knees. To pin down the exact date of the footage, film historian David Kiehn meticulously combed through automobile registrations and weather records.

Watch it for free on Youtube.

Mrs. Winchester’s House (1963)

You might be familiar with the Cliff Notes version tied to this historic landmark. The shut-in widow of a firearms millionaire. Her tangled maze of a house with a staircase leading up into the ceiling and a door opening out into space — and a two-story drop to the garden below. Constant construction that, legend has it, might be spurred on by an urge to confuse vengeful ghosts (victims shot by Winchester rifles).

If you’re not willing to fork out nearly $50 for the guided tour, this 30-minute documentary is a great alternative. It goes into plenty of detail on the life and legend of the heiress and her home, all while displaying interior and exterior footage of the surreal establishment. And sure, there are much more current documentaries about the mansion— but the stark black and white visuals, the eerie background music and the disembodied narrator (who sounds a little like Morticia Addams) adds a fun spookiness to the experience.

Watch it for free on Youtube. Also check out our write-up questioning some long-held beliefs about the heiress and her home.

Sally Gardener at a Gallop (1878)

Time for a trip to the racetrack! One of the earliest silent films is a series of images commissioned by Leland Stanford (before he became the founder of the university that carries his name). Wanting to have a better understanding of a racehorse’s gait, he recruited the help of a photographer with an unfortunately spelled name: Eadweard Muybridge (poor guy). Edward… That is to say, Eadweard, displayed his work by inventing a fun-sounding apparatus called a “zoopraxiscope.” It became the first projector to show photographic images in motion.

Another fun fact: this footage came from the race track at Palo Alto Stock Farm. They didn’t know it at the time, but that land would someday become part of Stanford University.

Watch it for free on Youtube.

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Johanna Harlow

Journalist with a fondness for micro-cultures and all things quirky.

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