What I love about documentaries is that they open a window onto new people, places and cultures. Film makers can take you to locations that it might otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to access. And not only do documentaries give you the opportunity to learn about life in other places, but they also have the amazing capacity to change the way we see the complicated and extraordinary world we live in.
So if you’re currently at home, waiting to go on your next adventure, I’ve compiled a list of 10 documentaries that will transport you to new, fascinating destinations. Some will inspire, some will shock and others will leave you speechless. Enjoy!
1. Planet Earth II
So this isn’t one documentary but a six-part series and it’s astonishing. I urge you to watch every episode. Presented by David Attenborough and with a score by Hans Zimmer, the powerful and moving episodes take you on a whirlwind tour of the wildlife living in different habitats across the world. From penguins valiantly diving off cliffs to source food for their families and a dormouse desperately jumping between thistles to avoid a predator, to a biblical superswarm of locusts filling the skies of Madagascar and a giraffe bravely outrunning a pack of lions in the Namib Desert. What’s great is that at the end of every episode you get the chance to hear from the film makers about the painstaking processes involved in filming this astounding footage.
2. Waste Land
The Oscar-nominated Waste Land by director Lucy Walker tells the story of Brazilian artist and photographer Vik Muniz who collaborates with a group of ‘pickers’ – men and women who survive by scavenging in one of world’s biggest garbage dumps in Rio. Together they create portraits out of rubbish, which are then sold at auction, with proceeds going back to the community. It’s a fascinating insight into the lives of the pickers, such as Irma, who makes stew with ingredients she finds in the dump.
3. The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom
Another by Lucy Walker (she’s my favorite!). This time the film’s set in Japan and tells the story of the survivors of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the hope and courage they find in the annual flowering of the cherry blossom. A visually stunning and moving documentary.
4. Ai Weiwei Never Sorry
This film is a dynamic and informative portrait of the heroic artist and activist Ai Weiwei who challenges the Chinese government and their abuses of human rights. The authorities closed down his blog, assaulted him, razed his new studio to the ground and then imprisoned him for 3 months. It’s compelling watching.
5. A Small Act
A touching story of how a man from a poor village in Kenya traces the anonymous donor who funded his education as a child, enabling him to finish school. He ended up studying at Harvard and then working as a human rights lawyer for the UN. The film gives an insight into the struggles families from poorer communities face in ensuring their children have access to education, and it also shows how even the smallest acts of altruism can have an unprecedented impact on a person’s life.
A beautiful documentary set in the remote village of Laya in Bhutan, one of the last remaining places in the world to be connected to electricity, TV and internet. Told through the eyes of a child monk, the film charts the transition in the village as electricity arrives and provides a remarkable snapshot of a way of life that is vanishing.
7. The Act of Killing
This film is EXTRAORDINARY. If you haven’t already seen it you must. In Indonesia between 1965-1966, a group of previously low-level gangsters ruthlessly tortured and murdered over a million communists in the country. Not only have these men never been held to account for their actions, but they are celebrated and revered by their community. At the request of documentary director Jason Oppenheimer, the gangsters happily re-enact bloody atrocities from their past for a Hollywood-style film. Although it’s difficult to watch, it is an astonishing and horrific portrayal of the genocide and of how these men continue live with impunity.
8. Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
From watching the news you probably already know the story of what happened to three women from Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot; they protested at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow for less than a minute and were sentenced to two years in a penal colony. But what this documentary offers is an insight into Putin’s Russia and the injustice of the legal system. There’s lots of footage from their bail and appeal hearings, during which the women are caged in glass or metal cells. The director highlights the striking parallel between this and the Stalinist show trials of the soviet era.
9. White Helmets
This documentary tells the story of a courageous group of men working across Syria who risk their lives to rescue civilians from bomb wreckages. A devastating portrait and reminder of what day-to-day life is like for people living in this war-torn country.
I have to admit that I’ve not yet watched this documentary but it’s next on my list and by all accounts it’s a must see for every traveler. It was filmed in 24 countries in six continents and highlights the relationship between earth and humanity and how they interact through images, music and words.
What’s your favorite documentary? We’d love to hear some recommendations – let us know in the comments!