75 documentaries that will change how you see the world
Image from the documentary Samsara, by the director of Baraka.
At United Explanations we are passionate about documentaries, and as far as we can tell, so are our readers. We began our adventure with a compilation of documentaries over a year ago; it contained 25 documentaries. Nine months later we included up to 50 films and thanks to the warm welcome it received, we decided to expand it to 75. This would not have been possible without the help of our readers and United Explanations fans on Facebook. This list can continue to grow if you share your opinion with us: please feel free to leave a comment identifying other documentaries that should not be missed.
There are documentaries that leave you musing and pondering for days, inspiring profound critical thought. This list collects 75 titles that produce this effect, changing the way we perceive the world we live in.
30 documentaries that will make you reconsider the world we live in
1. Inside Job
This documentary does not only consider the causes but also identifies those responsible for the 2008 world economic crisis, which led to bankruptcy for millions of people who lost their homes and jobs, in addition to endangering the economic stability of developed countries. Through extensive research, interviews with financial advisors, politicians and journalists, the documentary reveals the rise of business people without scruples and the degradation of politics and education.
This film shows the adventure of Zana Briski, a photographer, in the red district of Calcutta, India. There she meets a group of children, the sons and daughters of the prostitutes that work in that sector. Briski gets along with them and shows them photography, gives them cameras and takes them to visit the sea. Later, she organizes an artistic exhibit with the best images taken by the children. Later, she tries to lift the children from poverty by taking them to school.
3-5. Zeitgeist Trilogy
This is a nonprofit independent film, a documentary-movie trilogy by Peter Joseph which has spread widely though the Internet, though the project’s website and Google Video. On January 15th, 2011, the third movie premiered simultaneously in more than 60 countries, 30 languages and 340 showings, in what was one of the biggest independent events in movie history. The film addresses the need to transition from the current monetary system that governs the world to an economy based on the planet’s resources, which would in turn be regulated by current scientific knowledge to make it truly sustainable and efficient.
This documentary is about the birth, growth and maturity of a malignant tumor: big business. This critical and realist film features guest appearances by Nike, Coca-Cola, IBM… and great thinkers such as Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Milton Friedman amongst others. The movie presents the techniques used by big multinationals to increase their business dividends; techniques whose lack of scruples does not cease to surprise.
The documentary was filmed in 24 countries and narrates the evolution of the Earth, Humanity and their relationship through images, music and words. The apparent fragility of human life is contrasted with the greatness of its works, all the while underlining the unequal relationship held between humans and nature. Amongst these contrasts, human kind’s spirituality arises as the most important element that sets it apart from other species.
8. Food Inc.
The food industry in the United States of America is criticized sharply and harshly in this film. The documentary examines the meat industry, which it deems inhuman and economically and environmentally unsustainable. It also analyzes the industrial production of grains and vegetables, which it is also finds to be economically and environmentally unsustainable. Lastly, the film reflects on the economic and legal power wielded by the big food production companies and how they promote insalubrious consumer habits in the American public.
The role of the United States of America, NATO and the European Union in the tragic rupture of the previously prosperous and pacific European state of Yugoslavia is critically assessed in this documentary. The Weight of Chains presents a new perspective on the western intervention in the division of ethnic groups in Yugoslavia and maintains that the war was forced on them externally whereas internally, many citizens desired peace. The author of the movie analyzes the role of extreme factions on both sides of the conflict and addresses the myths of what actually happened in the 1990s.
An old, short documentary that shows a satiric and harsh reality of Brazilian society in the 1980s: the lack of consciousness and the poverty resulting in the degradation of human beings. It is considered as one of the most important documentary films in history, having won awards in Berlin and other important film festivals around the world.
11-13. Qatsi Trilogy
The Qatsi Trilogy is the informal name of a series of three movies without graphic texts or voices, directed by Godfrey Reggio, and produced, amongst others, by Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Soderbergh. The trilogy inspects the role of humans in the light of two concepts vital for our true development: respect for Earth as our origins and the complex dynamics of cohabiting in cities. The three movies that make up the sequel are Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. The film’s titles are Hopi words (the Native American tribe) and have as common denominator the word qatsi, which means life.
This animated documentary tells the story of the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Chatila (Lebanon) in 1982. One night at a bar, an old friend tells Ari, the director, about his recurring nightmare where he is chased by 26 dogs: exactly 26 dogs, each night. The two men come to the conclusion that it has to do with a mission they carried out for the Israeli army during the first war with Lebanon, in the early 1980s. Ari is surprised that he has no recollection of that period in his life and decides to speak with old friends and colleagues around the world, reopening his memories through surreal images.
This documentary analyzes the controversial visit that Canadian officers conducted in February 2003 to Guantanamo to see Omar Khadr, a young Canadian who then was 16 years old and was imprisoned for allegedly killing an American soldier. Washington therefore labeled him a war criminal. The documentary shows from inside the prison the psychological pressure exerted on the first child prisoner in recent history.
Earthlings is documentary on how humans use other animal species nowadays. Hidden cameras and images are used to show the habitual practices employed by some of the biggest industries of the world that exploit animals for economic revenue. The documentary is divided in five parts: pets, food, leather, entertainment and experimentation. Earthlings, which has been awarded several prizes, is narrated by actor and animal rights activist Joaquin Phoenix and its score was arranged by Moby (a fellow activist).
This documentary, directed by Bob Compton with contributions by of Harvard researcher Tony Wagner, analyses the keys to the success of Finland’s educational model. Finland’s educational system has ranked as one of the best educational models in the world. The researcher analyses the particularities of the system and compares it to the American educational model.
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a documentary based on the 2007 book by Canadian journalist Naomi Klein. She maintains that the economic policies designed by the Chicago School of Economics and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman have triumphed in free market economies not because they are popular, but because policy-makers were able to exploit the disorientation experienced by society after disasters or calamities. In this application of the Shock Doctrine, commotion and confusion allow otherwise unpopular reforms to be pushed through exceptionally.
This documentary brings to light the debate on the death penalty in the United States of America, through the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man condemned for a murder he did not commit. As a result of this documentary’s spread and the waves it produced, Adams was released. Research done by Morris suggested that the five witnesses had committed perjury. This evidence led to a new trial, in which one of the witnesses, David Harris, retracted his testimony without confessing to the crime. Harris was later convicted as the killer in this crime, and executed.
Michael Moore directs and stars in this documentary, which uses the massacre at Columbine High School as the starting point (tragic shooting in 1999 at the Columbine High School) to generate debate on the nature of violence and the use of weapons in the USA. It won an Oscar for best documentary and has been admired and condemned in almost equal measure. The film was part of the official selection for the Cannes Festival 2002.
21. Le Monde selon Monsanto (The World according to Monsanto)
This French documentary is about the American multinational Monsanto: its history and commercial products, such as PCB, OGM, Agent Orange, the bovine growth hormone Somatotropin, and its popular herbicide Roundup (Glyphosate). The World According to Monsanto is also a book researched and written by the same author, which has been translated into 11 languages. The author, Marie Monique Robin, was awarded the Norwegian “Rachel Carson Prize” in 2009, an award dedicated to women environmentalists.
This documentary examines the environmental and political consequences of the decrease in water supply on the planet, speculating that in the future, wars will be waged over water. The movie also emphasizes success stories of water activists around the world and calls for community action. This film is based on the book Blue and Gold: The Right to Stop Corporate Theft of the World’s Water by Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke.
23. Ônibus 174
This is a frightening Brazilian documentary on the high jacking of a bus in Rio de Janeiro in 2000. Television images and interviews are alternated. It was welcomed by critics in general and particularly A. O. Scott, of the New York Times, labeled it as one of the ten best movies in the world for 2003.
24. Comprar, Tirar, Comprar (The Light Bulb Conspiracy)
Cosima Dannoritzer’s documentary is about planned obsolescence, that is, the deliberate reduction of product life to increase consumption. Why do electronic products last less and less? How is it possible that in 1911, a light bulb had a certified duration of 2500 hours and 100 years later, its life has been reduced to half that time? Is an infinite production system compatible with a planet that has limited resources?
Shoah (from the Hebrew שואה, “catastrophe”) is a French documentary released in 1985 that lasts approximately ten hours. The subtitles and filmed testimonies were published in a homonymous book. This film is a documentary of oral history, filmed throughout ten years on different continents. It brings together first-person testimonies of victims, witnesses and executors of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.
26. Once Brothers
This documentary is about Vlade Divac, one of the pillars of the Yugoslavian national basketball team which was extremely successful some 20 years ago. Divac explains how his friendship to the Croation Drazen Petrvic was ruined due to the Balkan War, in which Croatia proclaimed its independence from Yugoslavia. A short time later, in 1993, Petrovic – one of the best European players in the NBA along with Divac – died in a traffic accident.
This documentary won Best Movie at the sixteenth edition of the DocsBarcelona Festival. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, it starkly portrays the genocide in Indonesia at the hands of Anwar Congo’s death squads, who are responsible for over a million deaths. In this movie, the executioners, far from being judged, pretend to make a movie: they write the script and become the actors, sometimes even playing the roles of their victims.
28. War Photographer
War Photographer is a Swiss documentary by Christian Frei, released in 2002. It recounts the story of James Nachtwey, a war photographer considered by many to be the best war photographer in history. It deals with the dilemmas that war journalists face. This documentary was nominated in 2002 for an Oscar (best long documentary).
In its 200,000 years of existence, humankind has broken the equilibrium of almost 4 billion years of evolution on Earth. The price to pay is considerable, but it is too late to be pessimistic. Using previously unseen images of more than 50 countries from the sky, Yann Arthus- Bertrand, shares with us his capacity of awe as well as concerns. He lays the first stone for a building that we must all build together.
How to Make Money Selling Drugs offers a provocative look into the lives of people on both sides of “the war on drugs”. It delivers a diverse and unique perspective on the topic, through interviews including the infamous drug dealer “Freeway” Rick Ross. This step by step guide on how to go from being a street dealer to a drug lord also reveals how American public policy is actually an invitation to drug trafficking.
Other unmissable documentaries
There are hundreds of documentaries that are worth mentioning in this article. These are some that our team and readers have mentioned and you should not pass up:
- Children of the Secret State (Children in poverty, North Korea)
- Presumed Guilty (Presunto Culpable, in Spanish, justice system in Mexico)
- Waiting for Superman (American educational system)
- A Small Act (Education, Kenya)
- Waste Land (Art and waste, Brazil)
- Black Gold (Coffee and fair trade, Ethiopia)
- Into Eternity (Nuclear waste, Finland)
- Darwin’s Nightmare (Environmental pollution, Tanzania)
- How To Start a Revolution (Modern revolution, global)
- The End of Poverty (Development and the distribution of wealth, global)
- Gas Land (Energy resources, USA)
- Fahrenheit 9/11 (Fight against terrorism, USA)
- Give Up Tomorrow (Death penalty, Philippines)
- Blood in the Mobile (Production of cell phones, Democratic Republic of Congo)
- China: Triumph and Turmoil (China’s rise in the world, China)
- The Cove (The hunt and slaughter of dolphins, Japan)
- Sicko (American healthcare system, USA)
- Exit Through the Gift Shop (Life and art of Bansky, a graffiti artist, United Kingdome)
- Grizzly Man (Life and death of a bear lover, Alaska)
- Samsara (The relationship between humanity and the world, global)
- 5 Broken Cameras (Conflict on the West Bank, Israel-Palestine)
- The Take (The occupation of factories, Argentina)
- The Imposter (History of a Frenchman who impersonates the disappeared son of an American family, USA – Spain)
- Debtocracy (The roots of debt in Greece, Greece)
- The Forbidden Education (New education models for the integral development of human beings, Argentina)
- Who Killed the Electric Car? (Reasons why the electronic car was not successful in the 90s, United Kingdom)
- The Ascent of Money (Financial history in the world, global)
- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (The bankruptcy of Enron and bad practices, USA)
- A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (The current state of man’s oil dependency, global)
- Not My Life (Human trafficking and slavery in our day and age, global)
- Capturing the Friedmans (Story of the abuse of minors in a Jewish family in the 1980s, USA)
- Searching for Sugar Man (The life of an unknown singer in the USA who was greatly successful in South Africa, South Africa)
- Man on wire (Life of a tight rope walker and his attempt to cross the twin towers, France)
- Promises (Contact between Palestinian and Israeli children aged 9 to 13, Israel)
- The Wings of Life (Life and death of Carlos Cristos, diagnosed with a terminal illness at age 47, Spain)
- The Battle of Chile (Describes the events in Chile between 1972 and September 1973, the end of Salvador Allende’s government, Chile)
- This Film Is Not Rated Yet (Questions the archaic and puritanical classification system of movies in the USA, USA)
- Manufactured landscapes (The new industrial landscapes of the 21st century, China)
- The Agronomist (The life of Dominique, who opened the first independent radio station in Haiti during years of repression, Haiti)
- S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (Harsh documentary on the S21 Detention Center and the torture that happened there, Cambodia)
- The Invisibles (The true story behind Mexicans that emigrate to the USA, Mexico)
- Inside: Undercover in North Korea (Pretending to be a medical coordinator, a women makes her way into the most secretive country in the world, North Korea)
- The Gleaners and I (The recovery of food and objects our society considers garbage, France)
- Approved for Adoption (A South Korean child’s search for identity after adoption by a Belgium family, Belgium)
- The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Broadcasting of the coup d’état in Venezuela in April 2002, Venezuela)
Have we missed a must-see documentary?
Leave a comment below this article and help us complete the list!
Translation of the original article in Spanish by Renée López Fernández
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