For better or worse, I am terrible at watching movies. I might see one a year in a theater, and I struggle with the sensory assault of way too loud sound, people chewing and slurping all around me, and the constant resentment that I may have spent $20+ to bring bed bugs and sticky shoes home with me. I am terrible at sitting still and paying attention to something that isn’t live. My family and friends used to tease me for how quickly I would fall asleep when we tried to watch movies, as I often passed out during the opening credits or first scene. If I stay awake, I get exasperated with bits of dialogue that don’t ring true for me, or I start obsessively analyzing themes and motifs or costuming and cinematography to find something to latch on to. If there is the slightest bit of suspense, I look up spoilers so I can watch how it plays out instead of letting myself be surprised. I struggle if I don’t have something to occupy my hands (knitting or sketching usually) and I have a genuinely hard time not talking through everything, so I imagine I am very annoying to watch movies with. Also these days, I flat-out refuse to watch horror films.
I do, however, love movies, and when I find a good one I love it intensely and elaborately because it has managed to survive my scrutiny and nit-picking AND kept me awake. So for obvious reasons, unless I am rewatching a tried-and-true, I am reluctant to agree to watching a movie with company that I want to like me afterwards (my Netflix-and-chill has customarily taken the form of nature documentaries, with bonus points if they are narrated by David Attenborough). I was delighted to discover that all my issues with watching conventional movies dissipate completely when I watch documentaries. They are soothing in the nerdiest possible ways, often fascinatingly thought-provoking, and above all (my favorite quality in just about anything) they inspire me to research topics further and learn more. I used to watch documentaries mainly for entertainment, typically about food, subculture history, niche interests like sneaker collecting, or the gold standard, biographies. If something is historically accurate, I am enrapt.
In recent times, my typical fare has felt a little less substantive than I need, so my documentary diet has gotten distinctly political. It’s not really as conducive to Netflix-and-chill as majestic lions in the wild and scenic vistas, but they are satisfying in the same way as undergrad philosophy classes, coupling ideas that change your entire sense of reality with the luxury of really delving deep into them.
So, here are some truly excellent politically-charged documentaries I’ve watched over the past few years that have been, with no exaggeration, life-changingly profound and thought-provoking. Since I talk about these all the time in person, it only makes sense to collect them here too.
1) Human Flow
Human Flow (links to watch online)
Ai Weiwei’s project exploring the lives and experiences of refugees around the world is so profoundly important that I wish everyone would watch it right now. This issue is so significant personally that my mother and I saw this film on its opening weekend in Manhattan, and we both just sprayed tears through it. More than capturing the direness of the situations the subjects are in, Ai Weiwei gets at their essential humanity, carefully crafting the point that we are all of us, everywhere, fundamentally the same, but we isolate each other and commit atrocious acts of violence over relatively small differences. The presence of Weiwei and his crew is minimally felt with spare bits of text and voice-overs every once in a while, but his sensitivity permeates the cinematography and tenderness with which the refugees are presented. As bleak and terrifying a reality as it presents, it also has some abstract seeds of hope – the scenes of people helping each other or children putting on donated winter boots and hats allude to unseen, but impactful kindness in the world trying to help them. If someone is capable of feeling empathy at all, this film will evoke it and urge them to act; and if anyone watches this film and fails to recognize the refugee crisis is a whole-world humankind problem, they are not paying attention.
Watch on Netflix
Ava DuVernay’s staggering 2016 documentary posits that mass incarceration of people of color in the United States functions as an oppressive legacy of slavery. I first read about the prison industry’s role in maintaining inequality in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and 13TH builds on these ideas in an emotionally resonant, clear and sharp presentation. This film challenges the biases we all hold such as, “If you don’t want to go to prison, don’t commit crimes” by reminding us that we have all, every single one of us, broken the law in some major or minor way, but the laws are disproportionately enforced. It examines the ways lives are broken and changed by prisons and the nefarious profits being made off of, quite literally, keeping black and brown men in cages. It only becomes more urgent and relevant in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and escalating extrajudicial executions committed by police officers in the line of duty. I also came away with a new clarity that “law and order” is not what it seems and that many of our revered social constructs were put in place to protect the property and interests of those in power at the expense of human lives.
3) The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War (links to watch online; also on PBS)
This 10-episode documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick genuinely blew my mind. As recent history that my parents lived through, I thought I had a pretty solid understanding of the events and motivations, of counter-cultural resistance and the American experience during the war. I was so wrong. By digging deeper into history, presenting perspectives from all sides of the conflict, exploring recently declassified information, and giving the still-living primary sources the time and space to talk openly, emotionally, vulnerably, and potently about their experiences, the story is told more complexly, completely, and profoundly than ever before. The lesson I have typically taken away from Vietnam Era politics was “Never trust the government,” as it was (as far as I knew) the first time elected politicians knowingly, flagrantly lied to the public to achieve their aims. Even going into it deeply cynical about the war and its futility, my worldview was shattered. I came away more sincerely committed to pacifism and peaceful conflict resolution than ever before, and I am more convinced than ever that the men beating the drums of war are always the ones who profit most from it. Crucially, this series also helped me understand the motivations and beliefs of those I previously would have dismissed or failed to appreciate, and it helped me recognize the ways that factions of society are played against one another by those who thrive by taking advantage of chaos and fear. The lessons from the Vietnam War are more important now than ever, and I hope every American will watch this series with an open mind.
4) The Untold History of the United States
Watch on Netflix, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play and elsewhere
I will admit, I wasn’t really paying attention to Oliver Stone in 2012. I had recently written a paper on JFK in the context of historical and critical sources for a writing class, and I wasn’t feeling his particular brand of mainstream conspiracy theorizing. I watched this 12-part series as a chaser to The Vietnam War and found it a satisfying reappraisal of the jingoistic version of history I had been taught in school. Oliver Stone and historian Peter J. Kuznick of American University wrote a massive book reexamining the version of history where American is always the “good guys” and we always win because goodness prevails. Though Stone’s dry monotone left a bit to be desired, the deadpan statement of facts, reading of quotes, and placement of history in context was fascinating and haunting. I had literal nightmares over the coldly tactical decision-making process of which cities in Japan would be the most impactful and demoralizing decimation sites for dropping the bomb. The no-holds-barred examination of Truman’s character through his own words was chillingly poignant. And I could even appreciate that as much as I loved Obama (which is like, with all my heart) he didn’t give back the powers extended to the presidency by the Patriot Act and wasn’t right in all his actions, including drone strikes with heavy civilian casualties. Oliver Stone’s approach seems to be muddying the waters by giving even credence to all information rather than taking an immediately obvious declarative stance, but at the end I came out questioning and reconsidering everything I had taken for granted, especially the ideas of American exceptionalism that are bandied about quite comfortably as truth today.
Watch on YouTube, Vimeo, and elsewhere
When I first watched Adam Curtis’s 2016 documentary, it was all I could talk about and remains one of my top recommendations. Juxtaposing archival footage with a powerful narrative reexamining history through our current fuller understanding of events (and underlaid with a dope soundtrack), Curtis gets to the heart of the political strategy of obfuscation of reality, exposing the ways leaders have presented the truth as “unknowable” to control and influence people. Anyone familiar with Orwellian doublethink will recognize the dystopian concept played out in our 20th-21st century reality, over and over, where the uncertainty of truth is exploited to rewrite common knowledge with state-sponsored propaganda. Curtis does not pretend to be objective – he is clearly opposed to Brexit, right-wing populism spurred by xenophobia, Putin and the Russian propaganda ministry, and all the machinations of oligarchic oppression – but he examines some of the murkier times in world history where the general public was kept in the dark to give our governments latitude to do whatever they wanted in the interest of their donors. He examines the way idealistic radicals of the 60s were worn down to complacency and are now used as a tool to discredit opposition (i.e. that’s just the way silly college kids think – wait until you own a house and have a 401k to worry about). This documentary was made before Donald Trump was elected president, but it seems to have predicted its inevitability, exploring the forces at work in our society and the ways we communicate about issues. It is important to watch this one without collapsing into nihilistic complacency oneself, to insist on finding multiple corroborating sources without bias to get an understanding of events, and to constantly question why this version of reality is the one being presented.
If you like this one, I also strongly recommend The Reagan Show (available on Hulu among other places), which goes deep into Reagan’s use of television and public relations skills from his career in acting to shape public opinion and promote his agenda during the Cold War. It is entertaining, but chilling, to see how easily we are tricked by charisma into accepting surreality.
6) The White Helmets
Watch on Netflix
Following members of The White Helmets, a politically-neutral volunteer group who rescue civilian victims of bombings in Syria, this powerfully emotional documentary puts a human face on the airstrikes. Somehow these rescue workers are still hopeful and believe with all their hearts in the sanctity of life, even as they climb through rubble every day in what feels like a futile attempt to save people from a literal hell on Earth. Despite the brutality of the bombings and the sheer terror I felt watching it, there was a strange beauty to this film, a reminder that heroes are just regular people who choose to be brave and help other people. It is inspiring to see that in the midst of the very worst of humanity playing out through various nations bombing Aleppo off the map in their power struggles, the very best are rising up, resilient and undeterred in their faith that they were put here in this space and time to help other people and that every life (regardless of religion, politics, or other differences) is fundamentally worth saving and protecting. You will probably not be able to get through this one without crying your eyes out, but it’s an important cry to have.
7) Saving Capitalism
Watch on Netflix
Made as a companion film to the book by former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, this film is reassuringly calm and even-handed in its approach. It begins by explaining there is no such thing as the free market, so much as the market as it plays out within the rules the government creates. Reich examines the way those rules have shifted to be in favor of the consolidation of wealth among the richest through deregulation and tax policy that favors corporations over people. He explores the impact of these policies on average Americans, with a particularly poignant passage on the 2008 financial crisis. He finds surprisingly common ground between the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements, and he presents a sympathetic view of people so disenchanted with “corporate democracy” that they saw Bernie Sanders and Trump as basically the same thing in the 2016 election (and for a tiny little moment, viewed strictly through the lens of populism and economics, I understood that thinking). Reich does not divide his audience by political party, but rather finds our mutual interests and calls attention to the ways we are being pitted against one another. He is reassuring and presents actionable solutions to unifying the people and developing an economic policy that actually makes capitalism work for all of us. I was genuinely shocked that I came away from this film hopeful and focused on the future.
8) Before the Flood
Before the Flood (links to watch online)
For your environmentalism concerns, this examination of climate change by Fisher Stevens and Leonardo DiCaprio in partnership with National Geographic is a starkly unflinching (and yet cinematically beautiful) presentation of the urgency of action to halt climate change and reverse our disastrous environmental policies. Taking an expansive view on the many facets of climate change, the film states incontrovertibly that our current environmental crisis is man-made (I agree) and urges us to make necessary changes. Of particular interest to me were the sections set in India, where environmental activists are fighting an even steeper uphill battle, yet doing it with a seriousness of purpose that makes even the most tree-hugging American environmentalist seem half-assed and lazy. This film calls on us to tap into the ingenuity and creativity that characterizes 20th century industry to find lasting environmental solutions. It is inspiring, and it will help you re-commit to your principles if you become complacent or feel hopeless.
9) Joe’s Violin
Joe’s Violin / watch on YouTube
Lastly, as an incredibly uplifting and beautiful palette cleanser, I whole-heartedly recommend Joe’s Violin, the story of a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor’s violin donation during a public radio instrument drive. This short film follows his violin as it is given to a young woman in the Bronx in an incredible program to empower students through music. While not overtly political, the story of what Joe’s violin meant to him and what it means to the student today is simply extraordinary. It serves as a reminder that all of these political events, government actions, bombastic public figures, and distortions of truth have real-life consequences for real people. We tend to study history and politics from the aerial view, but seeing individual stories on the ground is crucial for understanding what we are really doing as a human species, as well as what we are capable of doing when we use our strength for good, hope, and positivity.
So I hope you find something interesting or new among these (if you haven’t already watched all of them) and I would love any solid documentary recommendations you may have, both political and general interest. The more thought-provoking, the better.
(And in a future post, I’ll do a roundup of some of the best non-political documentaries I’ve watched lately too.)