Early movies (pre-1900) were dominated by the novelty of showing an event. They were single-shot moments captured on film: a train entering a station, a boat docking, or factory workers leaving work. These short films were called “actuality” films; the term “documentary” was not coined until 1926. Many of the first films, such as those made by Auguste and Louis Lumière, were a minute or less in length, due to technological limitations.
Documentaries aren’t always seen as being super exciting compared to whatever new drama or action you could binge watch on Netflix. But the medium certainly provides opportunities to learn something about the world. Without lifting a finger.
Here are ten of the best documentaries that are not only excellent, but challenging to watch at times. Many of these will leave you thinking about the obsessive hobbies, consumption-oriented everyday living and sometimes terrifying politics that define our increasingly global world. Are you ready to change how you view the world?
1. The Century of the Self series
How the advertising and PR industries shaped consumerism by embracing an emerging understanding of the human psyche.
The incredibly fast Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna ended up dead. But the tale of his intense and almost enigmatic persona lives on through this documentary.
3. The Act of Killing
A member of the Indonesian death squad turned national hero is forced to face atrocities he commanded through extensive reenactments.
4. Waltz With Bashir
A deeply personal, animated walk-through of hazy, traumatic war memories from Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
5. Touching the Void
The story of a near-fatal attempt to climb Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes
6. God Loves Uganda
On the horrendous LGBTQ human rights situation in Uganda, where cruel anti-gay laws and general sentiment is sponsored by the US religious right.
7. The King of Kong
World class obsessives meet to challenge each other in breaking world records in classic video games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.
8. Beware of Mister Baker
You almost certainly heard some of the riff’s of the early hard rock supergroup Cream. This documentary traces the group’s huge sound and crazy time signatures to the gift of totally crazy, impulsive, violent and career-wrecking drummer Ginger Baker
9. The World Before Her
The movie follows two very different young women in India, the world’s largest democracy: The “modern” is represented by a Miss India beauty pageant finalist and her counterpart, a militant Hindu activist who says she’s prepared to kill to prevent westernization.
Laura Poitra’s 2013 interviews with whistleblower-to-be Edward Snowden. The filmmaker started getting messages from Snowden during the production of a film on post-9/11 mass surveillance and has managed to create a nervy real-life thriller that touches questions about the future of democracy.