The power and prevalence of the documentarian film has been growing steadily over the last decade, with a great opportunity now not only to be made more easily, but also to find a wider, more engaged audience. They tell stories of all kinds, from the intimate to the global, from the political to the social, the curious to the concerning.
There are those that inspire and those that amuse, but then there are those singularly affecting ones, those enlightening pieces of filmmaking that hit you dead on and force you to question the world in which you live.
As much around us changes and new information comes to light, be it about science, nature, politics, history, or whatever other longstanding convention we hold, we in turn change to catch up. Documentaries provide insight and information, presenting compelling arguments for cases of importance and urgency. At their best, they will alter instantly the way you live with such irrefutable, unshakable points that appeal to you to rethink what you think you know.
It all sounds a bit dramatic, but that is how it often works. It usually surprises the viewer, and rarely comes from a point of hostility, instead welcoming an audience to a new perspective, asking for change. Thus, we’re going to take a look at those select, special films. It’s not simply about moving or affecting or becoming more more aware, though that is certainly a part of it. It’s not just about language or thought either. It’s about action. It’s about changing the way you live your life. Here are the top 12 documentaries that will make you instantly change your life.
Since the days of Jaws, people have been both fascinated and terrified by sharks. Canadian biologist Rob Stewart sought out not to only dispel this myth, but more importantly, bring to light the slaughter of these evolutionary sound, once prolific creatures. Their only predator is man, and as Stewart catalogs, they’re being traded, hunted, disfigured and killed around the world to satisfy the literal appetite of a culture. Sharkwater not only brings much needed awareness to these horrendous acts, but challenges the viewer to change their attitudes about sharks, while also joining the fight to stop the consumption of shark-fin soup.
11 The Overnighters
The Overnighters is that beautiful film where a fascinating social drama comes smack into conflict with an emotional personal crusade. This intimate story follows a pastor in a small North Dakotan town, where the poor and desperate have flocked from around the country to finds jobs in the booming oil business. These people, however, have no place to stay, and so this Pastor Jay Reine, takes them in. Pleading with a town that isn't willing to lend a hand or help those in need, Reinke risks both his profession and his family in attempting to help as many as he can, while confronting hesitations with his own faith. Anyone who watches can’t help but be moved and find a part of them become more neighborly, more welcoming, and less judgmental of those in need.
10 An Inconvenient Truth
Al Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary is the standard-bearer championing the need to address climate change. The high-profile, scientific and accessible film, step-by-step identifies the way in which humans have contributed to a changing climate that endangers the planet. While it was attacked politically, and still remains a divisive issue in the American government, this acclaimed doc challenged all those who watch to not only accept the ways in which the world is being altered, but look to his or her own life for practical and effective ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint.
9 Divide in Concord
A lovely and surprising piece of filmmaking, Divide in Concord triumphs the human spirit and the best of our political system. With heart and humor and gravity too, this film follows 84-year-old crusader Jean Hill, as she campaigns tirelessly to ban bottled water in her town. With conviction and determination, she makes a brilliant case for the elimination of bottled water, citing excess in pollution, rise in chemicals and access to free water, among other reasons. Her arguments are undeniable, and after watching this film, you too will be done with bottled water.
8 The Cove
Similarly to Sharkwater, The Cove takes to the ocean, shinning a much needed light on the horrors of dolphin and porpoise slaughter in off the coast of Japan. Louis Psihoyos’ Academy-Award winning feature documentary is a most heart-wrenching and haunting watch. Firstly, The Cove is so taut, so thrilling, it feels itself like a piece of fiction as a group of activists look to invade, overthrow and expose a legacy of secret slaughter and practices. Secondly, this indelible film that follows Ric O’Barry, takes the viewer to a literal and figurative place from which they can never return. This was a case where awareness has helped produce change and inspired everyone who’s watched to take part, take action, in any way possible.
7 Terms and Conditions May Apply
This unnerving doc from 2013 looks to illuminate that which we sort of take for granted and sort of don’t care about. At some point over the last decade, everyone became really comfortable with inputting information on various online social and professional sites, and now our information is everywhere. Director Cullen Hoback takes viewers through the conditions of Facebook, Google and other networks that are allowed to seemingly do whatever they want with our personal information, and the government seems to be unable to catch up with the changing times. There is no one watching this documentary that doesn't go online right away to start altering and even deleting information they've posted, wondering where it all has ended up, and for what purpose.
6 The Ghosts in Our Machine
Director Liz Marshall follows photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, as she documents the plight of caged, abused animals around the world. Indefatigable, McArthur catalogs these creatures, understanding the power of photographs, despite being face to face with such horrific conditions. And she’s right: the potency of her pictures specifically and the film in general will compel the viewer to reassess their relationship with animals. There is no one with a heart that can watch this and not alter that which they consume, purchase, and support with it comes to animals.
5 Forks Over Knives
Not the only arresting film on this list that targets the viewer’s diet, Forks is a carefully-crafted, meticulously-argued doc that looks to welcome everyone to a world of whole foods and plant-based meals. It does this by not looking at the world around us, but by making the viewer look inward. Forks is a film that successfully argues the nutritional value and healthy benefits that come from such a diet, suggesting that “most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases” can be decreased or eliminated by getting rid of processed and meat-based foods. It’s hard to watch and not instantly take a look at what’s in your kitchen.
This documentary takes a deeper look at pollution around the world, as Jeremy Irons takes it upon himself to travel to many different countries and explore the world's most beautiful geographical locations, ultimately ruined and spoiled by the result of waste. Not only does it open up Jeremy Irons' eyes, but it opens all of its viewers' eyes, by understanding the size of the garbage location sites and the amount of waste that is deposited on a daily basis, along with the process of what becomes trash and how it is disposed. Anyone who watches this documentary will certainly be taken back by the proximity of all this toxic waste and how it affects our environment and us, as a whole.
3 Fed Up
Another powerful film that will make you question your diet, Fed Up is an efficient, high-profile explanation and evisceration of the powers of the sugar industry. With notable names such as Bill Clinton and Michael Pollen, Fed Up appeals to a widespread audience by effectively detailing the systemic problems with food culture in the United States, while simultaneously telling a human story of children struggling with weight loss. After this viewing, you’ll be done with foods that come from boxes and be extra careful when being told that something is ‘diet’ or ‘lite.’
This revealing doc by Gabriela Cowperthwaite has demonstrated its sheer power in just a couple years since it was released. Chronicling a legacy of neglect and misinformation by SeaWorld with regards to the orcas it holds captive, Blackfish is utterly compelling throughout, reducing both the audience and many of the interviewees to tears. The result? Companies have distanced themselves from SeaWorld, and even a couple fictional films have cut scenes that feature animals held in water parks. The public too has begun to turn their back on the entertainment group after understanding and accepting the needs for such animals to be free.
This unflinching look at the horrors that plague animals kept for the needs of humans attacks the viewer, forcing them to question not only their diet, but a society that allows such actions be committed. It’s about the farm industry, about entertainment, about testing, about clothing; all the ways in which we use and abuse animals. Earthlings is such a visually disturbing and emotionally distressing film that it comes with many warnings, including graphic content. All the awful things that take place before your animal-based food and goods come to you are shown in grave detail. It does not sidestep anything. Earthlings will turn you vegan instantly, eliminating any animal products from your lifestyle, leaving you forever, irrevocably changed.
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