Informing the viewer about a previously unreported incident or inspiring them to make a real-life change, the documentary medium is one of the most noble genres of filmmaking, often striving to better the world we see around us.
From classics of the genre such as The Thin Blue Line, Titicut Follies and Grey Gardens to modern greats like Flee, Summer of Soul and Free Solo, the hunger for quality documentary features have never ceased, with viewers constantly interested in films that may challenge their perception of the world around them. Whilst many documentaries come, inform and then leave, others will force genuine personal change.
Nearly every modern documentary will describe itself as ‘life-changing’ or a ‘genuine must-watch’, so we’ve sifted through such popular claims to bring you ten films that hold the power to genuinely change your life. Including the films of Werner Herzog, Asif Kapadia and Michael Apted, as well as modern Netflix specials, let’s delve into ten original stories and unique life lessons.
10 documentaries that can genuinely change your life:
10. Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston, 1990)
This influential documentary from Jennie Livingston tells the story of the New York drag scene during the 1980s, focusing on the eccentric individuals who brought life and vitality to a movement that would impact the world. Shedding light on the complexities of the scene and those who make it such a wild success, Livingston’s film is essential viewing for anyone interested in how the modern zeitgeist was moulded by the ‘80s scene.
Also touching on issues of racism, poverty and homophobia, Paris is Burning explores the necessity of inclusion whilst celebrating a scene that thrives on its sheer vigour and zest.
9. Amy (Asif Kapadia, 2015)
Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the great Amy Winehouse is a modern tragedy highlighting the shortcomings of modern media companies that force young talent to destruction. Lovingly told, the film explores the background of the singer, charting her childhood, her meteoric rise to stardom and her tragic fall from grace, passing away on July 23rd, 2011.
Encouraging the viewer to consider their own place in the media firestorm aimed at celebrities that is so often heightened by everyday people on social media, Amy is a crucial modern classic.
8. Czech Dream (Filip Remunda, Vít Klusák, 2003)
The role of advertising and fake news is so rife in modern society that it’s genuinely difficult to discern when we are being marketed to at all. Filip Remunda and Vít Klusák realised this way back at the start of the new century with their film Czech Dream which studied the role of advertising in persuading the masses to follow a fabricated truth, no matter what they read about the matter was real or not.
Watching this often hilarious Czech documentary will, no doubt, make you pause for thought before you fall victim to an advertising ploy, or indeed are lied to by key political figures.
7. Grizzly Man (Werner Herzog, 2005)
Known as one of the greatest documentary filmmakers of all time, Werner Herzog has long deconstructed the role of man in the existential modern world. Following a man who spends his annual summer living with grizzly bears on an Alaskan reserve, Herzog examines the indelible connection humans have with animals, asking if it is indeed insane or indeed strangely noble to spend so much time with them.
Quiet and reflective, Grizzly Man invites internal discussion as to one’s own peace with the wilderness, viewing nature in an entirely different way thanks to Herzog’s unique touch.
6. Earthlings (Shaun Monson, 2005)
Many food-related documentaries have tried to change attitudes to human consumption across the years, with Food, Inc. and Super Size Me both presenting compelling, now outdated, arguments for change. One message that has never faltered, however, is that of Shaun Monson’s Earthlings, a film that is responsible for turning hundreds of people across the world into animal rights advocates.
Presenting the disturbing reality for so many mistreated animals across the world, Earthlings, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix will genuinely change the way you look at animals.
5. For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts, 2019)
War documentaries can too often get bogged down with explosive visuals and dramatic real-life moments, though it’s the small, intimate journey of Waad Al-Kateab in the disorientation of war that truly prompts serious thought. Directed by the subject of the film as well as Edward Watts, the story details the female experience of war, focusing on a couple raising a child in the chaos of the Syrian Civil War.
Swirling an emotional whirlwind, Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts create a truly compelling film that details the story of war’s most forgotten victims, the women, children and everyday citizens of a town under siege.
4. I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)
A vast exploration of race relations in the USA, I Am Not Your Negro is based on an unfinished project by writer and activist James Baldwin named Remember This House. Detailing the lives of three revolutionary public figures, and close friends of Baldwin including Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, Peck’s film is a galvanising, bold project.
Whilst offering a comprehensive insight into the efforts of multiple civil rights pioneers, Peck also explains just how far society is yet to go to reach true equality, shedding light on the racism of Hollywood among other institutions.
3. Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)
There is simply no better document that explores the horror of the holocaust than Claude Lanzmann’s incredible, explorative documentary Shoah which is sure to alter your perspective on one of the greatest tragedies of human history. Clocking in at over nine hours, Lanzmann’s film presents interviews with survivors, witnesses and perpetrators during visits to multiple German extermination camps across Poland.
Brutal and hard-hitting, Shoah is one of the toughest documentaries to get through, though once you have, your perspective on the mid-20th century tragedy will be forever changed.
2. HyperNormalisation (Adam Curtis, 2016)
English filmmaker Adam Curtis has made a name for himself as a documentarian who is able to access the very heart of the contemporary zeitgeist, breaking down the internal structures that govern the modern world with staggering intricacy. HyperNormalisation, one of his many modern efforts, tells the story of how fake news and oversimplification has formed a strange world of artificial thought.
A near three-hour exercise for the brain, there is no doubt that Adam Curtis’ film will change your view on modern life, allowing you to see through the lies of modern consumerism and see the western world in an entirely new light.
1. The Up Series (Michael Apted, 1964 – 2019)
Described by the American film critic Roger Ebert as “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium,” the Up series, largely directed by Michael Apted, tracks the lives of 14 young boys and girls from various backgrounds, revisiting them every seven years to track their progress. Starting in 1964, the series has produced nine episodes, with each one providing a fascinating insight into how the 14 subjects have changed and adapted with every significant stage of their life.
Life-affirming, melancholy and utterly enveloped with the positive human spirit, the Up series will change the way you recall your own childhood and will adapt the way in which you perceive those around you. As Ebert states, it is indeed a noble, cinematic classic.