9 Documentaries That Everyone Should See
Sure, knowledge is power -- but can it also be entertaining? In the last few decades, a slew of documentaries have focused on the increasingly perilous state of the environment, food production and labor practices in the United States and answered that question enthusiastically in the positive. Movies like Food Inc., Forks Over Knives, Gasland and many others have managed to be as engaging and moving as any other kind of feature film -- even when shining a light on facts that can be tough to swallow. “Despite the rather grim picture that many of these films paint, they also show what has been a rich period for documentary filmmaking,” says Jim Lane, senior scholar in residence at Emerson Los Angeles and author of The Autobiographical Documentary in America. “This has been a tremendous period in which filmmakers have had the opportunity to get the word out about what’s happening out there. Hopefully, people can do something before it really is too late.” Here are nine documentaries that every conscious consumer should see and see immediately -- as in today. These are films that pack a visceral impact destined to light the spark of change in a way that a lecture or book, no matter how well-meaning, seldom end up pulling off. And trust us, that’s just the thing you -- and the world -- needs now.
1. Food Inc.
An Oscar-nominated examination of the effects of agribusiness, corporate farming and a political structure that seems designed to protect its interests over the health and welfare of the American people, Food Inc. is devastating in the scope and precision of its arguments. Safe to say, you will never find more compelling reasons to source your food from small, local famers -- and to go grass-fed if you choose to eat beef -- than you do here. “This movie really ups the ante for average, working people who are trying to maintain control of their own destiny and what they put their mouths,” says author Jim Lane. “What it presents would seem like a massive conspiracy if it weren't so easy able to connect the dots.”
2. Forks Over Knives
It's one thing to have people try to convince you to choose a vegetarian, whole-food diet, but it's quite another to see that lifestyle choice radically alter the lives of three very ill people for the better, as it does in this 2011 film. Far from subtle, the movie hammers you with facts, and it’s hard not to seriously reconsider a diet based on animal protein and processed food after seeing the benefits of the opposite choice laid out as compellingly as they are here. As the late Roger Ebert aptly put it, “Here is a film that could save your life.”
Some of the most powerful examples of this kind of filmmaking are when it tells the story of what author Jim Lane calls “a small, individual private citizen who comes upon a topic that outrages him and tries to do the best he can in representing this issue.” This Oscar-nominated doc is a prime example, showing filmmaker and environmentalist Josh Fox’s examination of the effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the impact of the government’s haste to approve it at all costs. Films like this devastate with what they don't show. “He ends the film with a list of companies, corporations, politicians and CEOs who refused to do interviews with him,” says author Jim Lane.
4. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
A different kind of environmental tale, If a Tree Falls eloquently tells the story of the activist organization the Earth Liberation Front, a monkey-wrenching group that felt strongly enough about environmental devastation to commit serious crimes to stop it, including burning down businesses they felt were responsible. It’s a remarkably crafted tale -- the film won the best editing award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar -- that forces you to contemplate the cost of caring too much. As Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It not only expertly chronicles the rise and fall of that controversial organization, it illuminates the unexpected drama and complexities behind one of its key figures.”
5. Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead
It’s one thing to talk about how unhealthy eating habits affect others, but the stakes become a lot higher when you turn the spotlight on yourself. That's just what Joe Cross, an Australian filmmaker and entrepreneur who once weighed 310 pounds, does in this unlikely film. This movie demonstrates the benefits of a plant-based diet while also showing off just how varied the modern documentary filmmaker’s toolbox has become. “There is clever use of animation to reenact certain things to illustrate points that the filmmaker wouldn't have otherwise been able to comment on,” says author Jim Lane.
6. Rape in the Fields
One of the most powerful things a movie or TV series in this genre can do is cast light on an issue that the audience never knew existed. Partnering with Univision, Frontline does just that with this expose of the sexual assault of immigrant women who pick the fruits and vegetables that end up on our dinner table. It's a hidden reality that that may be easier not to consider but needs to be a part of the larger conversation about the real cost of cheap food. “Frontline continues to do amazing work in this field,” says author Jim Lane.
7. Chasing Ice
This hauntingly beautiful documentary tells two high-stakes stories simultaneously. It demonstrates, through breathtaking stop-motion photography, the effects of climate change on glaciers in Iceland, Greenland and Alaska, while also showing environmental photographer James Balog’s heroic attempt to tell that story under extreme physical duress. Balog’s journey is a powerful way to illustrate how what is most certainly the most global story of our time is also a profoundly personal one.
8. An Inconvenient Truth
It’s fair to say that no film has done more to advance the international conversation on the environment than this Oscar-winner about former vice president Al Gore’s six-year campaign to inform the world about the effects of climate change. While the film may have calcified the political divide on the issue, it also put a loudly ticking clock on the issue that we’re all foolish to continue to ignore. “The world won't end overnight in 10 years,” Gore says in the film, which will reach its decade anniversary in 2016. “But a point will have been passed, and there will be an irreversible slide into destruction."
9. Roger and Me
Author Jim Lane credits this groundbreaking film -- alongside Errol Morris’s Thin Blue Line -- with “radically changing the world of mainstream American documentaries.” In telling the story of the General Motor’s plant closing in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, as well as his own quixotic attempts to interview the company’s then CEO, professional gadfly Michael Moore showed that humor and sarcasm can very much play a part of a serious discussion of a life-and-death topic. “This was a extraordinarily successful film,” says Lane. “It showed documentary filmmakers that you didn't necessarily have to starve every time you made a movie. It was also the film that showed filmmakers they could throw themselves in front of their own films and make fun of people, including themselves.”
What Do YOU Think?
Have you ever seen any of these documentaries before? What did you think of them? Are there other documentaries you would add to the list? Have you ever changed your habits or the way you think about something after watching a documentary? What happened? Share your thoughts, suggestions and stories in the comments section below!
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