Documentary films give us insights into worlds we may never have known. Whether it’s historical events, scientific inquiry, or a isolated community, documentaries have the special quality of—when done well—both empowering us with knowledge all the while entertaining and engaging us.
For those curious of mind and open of heart, here’s a short list, in no particular order, of 10 documentaries streaming right now on Netflix that are worth a watch.
An Honest Liar
A magical tale about, well, magic and a man who has dedicated his life to debunking charlatans and thieves who claim to have paranormal powers. Can you put all of your trust in a man who claims to be a liar by trade? Absolutely. An Honest Liar follows James “The Amazing” Randi, a bright boy misunderstood and shunned by his family who ran away and joined the circus. The film blooms slowly to expose his love affair with the slight of hand and his deep resolve in the power of the truth—whether it is scientific or personal. An intimate look at his life and the adversity he’s overcome will leave you with not only complex ponderings about the nature of ethics and the essence of truth, but a sense that there are some in this world who truly want to do good.
The latest from Netflix, Team Foxcatcher is a perfectly balanced and engrossing mystery. An impossibly wealthy man invests in an all-American wrestling team and invites the participants to live with him on his farm in Pennsylvania. Is this sport documentary about the triumphs of the human spirit and the abilities of athletes? Nope. Try a devastating look into the deteriorating effects of loneliness, mental illness, and delusion.
During WWII, the Japanese Army invaded the then capital city of China. All who had the means to evacuate abandoned their homes to seek refuge from the notoriously brutal soldiers; however, there were those left defenseless and what was to become known as “The Rape of Nanking” is a chilling reminder of the heinous and despicable actions humans are capable of.
The film features actors reading the correspondence and diary entries of many of the foreigners living in the city who at the time desperately tried to ensure the safety of the Chinese men, women, and children left in the city. These performances are heart-felt, but are nothing compared to the testaments of the real life survivors, now in their later years, recalling a time where an estimated 20,000 rapes occurred and over 300,000 soldiers and civilians were massacred.
It’s a tough watch. But it’s a compelling dissection about how innocents are often abused and discarded, what it means when the global community chooses silence over action, and how an entire generation can be destroyed by the hunger of war.
Free Willy came out in 1993, and as I understand it the thesis of the film is that keeping large, intelligent, and emotional animals in tiny cages for the purpose of money is wrong.
Apparently, we didn’t learn our fucking lesson and parks like SeaWorld continued what can only be described as slavery for the aquatic mammals they “own.” A documentary like this could have been an easily ignorable WWF PSA about animal cruelty, but the film focuses on the story of one particular male orca Tilikum whose abuse and mistreatment lead the grizzly deaths of at least three individuals. With this central story line and the tell-all narratives from ex-trainers at SeaWorld, a corrupt and negligent corporation dead set on the bottom line is exposed. Not only were the lives and safety of the animals disregarded, but also that of individuals convinced that they were bonding with these wild creatures. Court transcripts, home videos, interviews, and statistics are all interwoven to create a portrait of what the true cost of this kind of “entertainment” is.
Central Park Five
The wrongful conviction of five black children for the brutal rape of a New York woman (“The Central Park Jogger”) is enough to have you shaking your fists at the sky. “Injustice!” you might yell up to the heavens. The collage of news coverage, insights from historians, journalists, social psychologists, gives an in-depth look at how the justice system and the media work together to perpetrate hateful, racist, and damning sentences for young men who were seen as nothing more but symbols in a case that shocked the crime ridden 1980’s New York.
It’s a chilling reminder about the devastating effects of the mob mentality, institutionalized racism, and will perhaps have you thinking twice about the sensational headlines provided by news outlets across the globe.
Buck Brannaman travels North America to teach horse owners not only the way to interact with unruly horses without the use of violence or abuse, but he also teaches us a little about what it means to have humanity. He’s an authentic cowboy with his sparse words, dry humour, and complicated wisdom.
On the surface, the film appears to be about the “real” horse whisperer, a man imbued with powers to commune with animals. But the central crux of the film goes much deeper that this. It’s a story about a man who as a young boy was given an unfortunate education about what it means to be beaten down. Buck is an uplifting reminder about the virtues of compassion, understanding, and kindness.
Also, we get a pretty hilarious joke from Buck’s foster mother, a sainted woman who raise over 40 young foster boys over her life, but never seemed to lose her sense of humour.
The Queen of Versailles
For some, the attainment of fantastic wealth is heralded as the be-all and end-all of our short existence on this planet. What would you do with unimaginable amounts of money? Jackie Siegel and her time-share barren husband decide to build a 90,000 square-foot palace after seeing the decadence of the palace of Versailles. All if not well in their kingdom, as the 2008 financial crisis threatens their decadent lifestyle.
Rich people getting less rich, what’s so interesting about that? A lot, apparently, as we watch Jackie—a quizzical and desperate character—comes to terms with her life of excess. It’s a multi-layered microscopic character study about what it means to have nothing—even though material goods surround you.
Fascinating as Jackie is, there are also heart breaking and intimate moments with the two nannies living with and essentially raising the many Siegel children.
The Farm: Inside Angola Prison
The film follows the lives of six inmates living in the Maximum Security prison in 1998. It might be a bit dated, but it stands up as a worrying introspection about the prisoners who are serving out life sentences. Whether it’s a young man looking at the rest of his life behind bars, a dying inmate choosing to have his remains buried behind the prison walls, or a man maintaining his innocence, it’s worth a watch.
Thought it was crazy when Robert Durst forgot the microphone was on? There’s a similar moment of devastating truth when the parole board hears the pleas of one of its prisoners.
How We Got To Now
Did you know that ice is fucking fascinating? Steve Johnson nerds out about the every day, opening our eyes to the complex past of the light bulb in a way that makes you want to say, “Fuck yeah, electricity!” Unabashedly nerdy, the series investigates the sordid history of the what might be considered the mundane with a charismatic host, engaging info graphics, and stock footage give us a tantalizingly entertaining mini series about the legacy of ideas.
Not only will you have acquired some knowledge that you can break out at cocktail parties, but also it’s a macro look at the micro in our everyday for inquisitive minds, curious hearts, and geeks of all kinds.
Side note: I love how he doesn’t get gussied up. No teeth bleaching or fancy clothes for him. He even has his keys and wallet in his front pockets for many of the shots.
The BBC documentary series Africa focuses on five geological areas of the continent that is the show’s namesake. Majestic is the best word to describe both the scenery and the velvety voice of the show’s narrator David Attenborough. Attenborough’s provided his authoritative yet comforting vocals to animal specials before. However, in Africa we get the delightful treat of witnessing the man himself amidst the savannah grasses. The final segment “The Future” provides an emphasis on how homo sapiens shape the landscape and are responsible for the preservation of Africa’s multitude of wild life is an encouraging yet solemn reminder of our responsibilities are when it comes to the world we live in.
Also you get to watch as David Attenborough tries to deliver a monologue whilst terrified of a rhino. Gold.