6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

An Inconvenient Truth 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

Most often, the effect movies have on people are either temporary, lasting as little time as the length of the movie itself, or if they are more enduring, affect us in a way that we’re not entirely aware of. We see how movies and TV can have subtle impacts on the gradual shifts in cultural attitudes towards groups and issues after many years. It’s harder to identify precisely how movies have changed who we are as people, or what we believe and what values we hold dear. Part of this is because most movies deal with these things indirectly, in varied layers of abstraction, and so finding specific linkages between these abstract concepts and precise details of our lives is a nearly impossible feat.

Documentaries are interesting in this regard, though, because they most often deal with subjects and stories in a far more direct manner. They’re meant to be taken as non-fiction, and are thus awarded with the literal nature with which we tend to treat anything deemed as true to life or real world stories. This doesn’t mean they are incapable of misleading, but that they tend to feel more immediate. We see far more documentaries that are drive by causes, with the stated intention of moving people toward action, often with instructions on action to take being presented in text on the screen at the film’s conclusion.

Sometimes it’s more simple even than this. Some documentaries just have a way of blowing our minds that fictional stories aren’t quite able to achieve. It’s comparing the revelation of a new way of conceiving the world to the revelation of new facts about the world, perhaps. To illustrate the level of impact documentaries can have on viewers, I present 6 examples of docs that have affected me rather deeply, and I suspect have a broad effect on the way people who see them think about the world around them afterwards.

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1) Food, Inc.

Food Inc 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

For a variety of reasons, with few of them being terribly concrete, I am something of a vegetarian. While I had dabbled among the numerous justifications all around for cutting meat out of one’s diet, all such things sort of came to a head upon the release of Food, Inc. Seeing it tipped the scales for me. This searing look at the food industry draws from research by writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser who have made their own attempts to blow the lid off the secretive operations that produce the food that eventually ends up on our dinner tables.

The film is provocative and probably the most captivating of its type. It seems to at least protect against the tendency of advocacy films and animal rights groups to come off as self-righteous and preachy. The crux of Food, Inc., where it is at its strongest, is in providing information and presenting it in a way that challenges you to really think about it; even if your thoughts turn to questioning the veracity of the film’s claims, this likely leads to further research which is a positive thing. Finding a balance between stirring up dissent among viewers and giving them an outlet through which to channel that manufactured rage is a difficult task, but this documentary seems to strike that balance relatively well. Its recommendations aren’t the primary selling feature: getting information out and inspiring people to consider their food more carefully is its greatest achievement. If this documentary can’t convince people to think deeply about, and possibly change, their eating habits, surely nothing can.

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2) The Thin Blue Line

The Thin Blue Line 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

Errol Morris is most deservingly considered one of the foremost, if not the foremost, documentarian in all of film. His first movie, Gates of Heaven, received enormous acclaim, with a critic by the name of Roger Ebert emerging as one of its most vocal champions. Ten years later, he released The Thin Blue Line, an investigation into the murder of a police officer and its aftermath, including a man being wrongly convicted of the crime and being sentenced to execution.

This is one of those movies that when you watch it, there’s this weird dissonance in your mind from the fact that you know it’s dated, but it still feels like it was made recently. It has an energy to it that still feels fresh, and that could be due to the fact that it was an investigation into a wrongful conviction that could ultimately have real life consequences if enough people were to see it. A gorgeous score by Philip Glass and gripping reenactments of dramatic moments contribute to an altogether immersive documentary. Adding to the aura of this movie is the fact that it actually did lead to the falsely accused man, Randall Dale Adams, having his conviction overturned and being released from prison. It’s no wonder so many documentary and crime genre filmmakers have tried to replicate the style and success of The Thin Blue Line, though none have matched its mastery.

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3) Jesus Camp

Jesus Camp1 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

There were a couple of deeply affecting religious documentaries that came out in 2006. One, Deliver Us From Evil, dealt with the heartbreaking and infuriating results of child abuse in a Catholic church parish. Another was Jesus Camp, a look at a children’s summer camp catering to devoutly fundamentalist Christian families. This second one touched closely to personal experiences from my own life, but it’s also a troubling portrait of the deceptive forcefulness with which anyone committed to a cause can shackle another person in with them when they’re unable to tell them “no thank you.”

Such is the case with the “Kids on Fire” Bible camp depicted in the documentary. The film focuses on the apparently well-intentioned leader of the camp named Becky Fischer, as well as a few of the campers in particular. We see them at the camp and at home, being taught specific values and lessons specific to their parents’ religious principles, insulating them from the secular world around them. This includes a number of bizarre activities to which description can’t do justice. The overwhelming perception by the film’s end, and the dominant reaction, is that these children are indoctrinated, even brainwashed. That isn’t necessarily unique to religion, however, even though it may be more severe when eternal salvation is what’s on the line. It can extend to all sorts of political and environmental causes that children who are too young to know what they’re talking about and being used for get roped into by adults. There are a lot of creepy elements of the Kids on Fire organization, but what’s most striking about this is how easily children are treated as tools or plant seeds rather than human beings.

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4) In the Realms of the Unreal

In the Realms of the Unreal 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

Documentaries can often demonstrate the fact that we’re surrounded by pretty amazing stories all the time. Those who are able to find them and present them to an audience in a fascinating way are nothing short of heroes of narrative. One of the best examples of how ignorant we are to unknown wonders next door is the 2004 documentary In the Realms of the Unreal.

The movie tells the story of Henry Darger. Darger was a janitor during his life, but after his death it was discovered that he had written a 15,000 page novel with hundreds of watercolor illustrations. He lived a sheltered and reclusive life, but created some remarkable art in his private apartment, becoming something of a celebrated eccentric artist posthumously. His stories are from a seemingly simple mind that had little knowledge and experience in the world around him, but detail this complex fantasy world that paint an incredible portrait of the mind of a man that was virtually unknown to anyone, even his neighbors. The takeaways for me from this movie were numerous, but most prominent were the notions that art is one of the purest forms of expression, especially for those who are unable for one reason or another of expressing themselves verbally to others, and also that the sources of great art come from such unexpected places so often that it might be wise to invert such expectations altogether.

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5) Capturing the Friedmans

Capturing the Friedmans 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

Another documentary that challenges initial impressions of a person, the whole question of judging a book by its cover, Capturing the Friedmans is a startling tale of a seemingly ordinary New York family that becomes the center of an investigation into horrific child pornography and sexual abuse. There are all sorts of twists and turns to the case, and director Andrew Jarecki includes a great amount of home videos of the Friedman family before and after the investigation and trial, attracting sympathy for the family while also not shying away from the disturbing nature of the alleged abuses.

It’s also not a film that shies away from ambiguity and uncertainty. The early impressions of the Friedmans which are seemingly positive are quickly challenged, but any subsequent conclusions about their innocence or reprehensibility are challenged even further. Finding easy answers to any questions posed by the documentary is seemingly impossible. The final impression seems to be that you can apprehend whoever you deem to be the perpetrators of terrible acts, but capturing the truth of such occurrences is a much more elusive task.

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6) Exit Through the Gift Shop

Exit Through the Gift Shop 6 Documentaries That Could Change Your Life

Movies and TV shows that explore and play with the ambiguity of reality are all the rage today. It used to be that viewers wanted desperately to know whether something was a character’s dream or actually took place in the reality of the world of the story. Now, after movies like Inception where we conclude without knowing whether someone is actually awake or dreaming and it doesn’t really matter all that much, or shows like Louie that don’t bother telling us whether something is happening in a character’s head or whether they’re actually seeing it with their waking eyes, this is less of an issue. The thrill of not knowing is becoming more and more popular. Three years ago, street artist Banksy fostered in this thrill with his either too good to be true or truth is stranger than fiction movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop.

In it, we are introduced to the artist now known as Thierry Guetta, also known as Mr. Brainwash. Formerly a clothing shop owner, Guetta becomes an emerging street artist, eventually staging his own exhibitions in Los Angeles and selling pieces to various celebrities. The documentary is better the less you know about it; I didn’t know who Banksy was at the time and had forgotten he was the director, so when his name came up in the movie as this secretive person it was totally compelling to me. Still, knowing he’s the one behind it makes the movie’s themes of art and commerce more immediate and forces you to contemplate them throughout. It causes a viewer to question what art is in the first place, and when it becomes unclear whether the story itself is a real documentary subject or a fictional mockumentary movie, the questions multiply. That only makes it more entertaining.

Are there any documentaries that have had a lasting effect on your life? Share your picks in the comment section below.

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