21 Documentaries That Changed the Way We See the World

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Documentaries help us shape the world that we live in. They often provide essential background information on complicated topics. They can even highlight current issues that we aren’t aware of. Today, we want to examine some of the most impactful documentaries ever made.

When compiling this list, we examined a variety of films covering different issues and picked some of the most outstanding entries we could find. From films covering the AIDS epidemic to genocide, these films offer a wealth of knowledge for those willing to seek them out.

1. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Photo Credit: HBO Documentary.

Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans changed how the world viewed its neighbors. The film won a Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and was also nominated for an Oscar for its achievements in nonfiction storytelling.

Capturing the Friedmans tells the story of Arnold Friedman and his teenage son, Jessie Friedman, as it relates to allegations of pedophilia lobbied against the family. The film is primarily showcased via home movies; taken by another of Arnold’s sons as he grew up. This adds an oddly personal touch to the film that works its way under your skin throughout the film.

2. Dark Money (2018)

Photo Credit: Big Sky Film Productions.

Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money explores the impact of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling of 2010. This ruling declared that the Constitution prohibited the US government from restricting how much money corporations could spend on political campaigns.

This ruling instilled a sense of fear in some Americans who believed this would lead to widespread corruption amidst the government. Dark Money offers a simple and digestible look into this complicated problem. It’s definitely recommended viewing for anyone who wishes to better understand the United States government, and how political campaigns are run.

3. How To Survive a Plague (2012)

Photo Credit: Public Square Films.

David France’s How to Survive a Plague is a harrowing look at the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. The film follows the activists behind the ACT Up and TAG organizations fighting for government recognition of the disease.

AIDS was largely written off as a disease that only affected a subset of people and didn’t receive much in the way of federal funding at its onset. As a result, queer groups had to band together to take care of one another. How to Survive a Plague highlights the struggle of those involved and the horrible inaction of the American government.

4. Grizzly Man (2005)

Photo Credit: Lionsgate Films.

Timothy Treadwell spent 13 years living among grizzly bears in Alaska. He would film his encounters with the bears and eventually viewed the bears as his charges. Tragically, Treadwell and his girlfriend were both eaten by one of the bears in 2003.

Werner Herzog recovered pieces of Treadwell’s footage and pieced together a documentary exploring his motivations and eventual death. Grizzly Man provides a deep dive into man’s ability to truly exist in peace with nature.

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5. F for Fake (1973)

Photo Credit: Les Films de l’Astrophore.

Orson Welles F for Fake is a delightful trek into the world of lies and deception. In the film, Welles talks with some of the most prominent con artists of his day. Covering subjects such as art forgery and fake journalism, Welles provides a beautiful look into the darker side of the charm.

6. 13th (2016)

Photo Credit: Netflix.

Ava DuVernay’s 13th tracks the criminalization of African American people in America from the end of the Civil War to the present day. This fearless film forces the American public to answer uncomfortable questions about the role of the nation and its use of systemic racism.

The film works because it ties in 150 years of American history to explain African Americans’ current struggles. Although 13th relies on historical accounts and statistics to get its point across, frustration and anger can be felt boiling just beneath the film’s surface. This emotional sensation helps the film relay the importance of the message behind the film.

7. All These Sleepless Nights (2016)

Photo Credit: Endorfina Studio.

Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights follows two twenty-somethings as they explore the streets of Warsaw. The film uses the young students’ focus on art to explore a city torn between its past and future.

All These Sleepless Nights is part lucid dream and part fever dream. Its non plot-driven narrative makes for a once-in-a-lifetime viewing event that everyone should experience.

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8. No Home Movies (2016)

Photo Credit: Liaison Cinématographique.

Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movies is a depressing look at the meaninglessness of life. Tragically, this was Akerman’s last film before she took her own life in 2015 at the age of 65. This experimental film follows Ankerman and her relationship with her mother.

The film combines online conversations with in-person meetings to create a surreal and foggy experience. Although it is deeply depressing, it offers the occasional uplifting message that suggests maybe life is worth living.

9. The Act of Killing (2013)

Photo Credit: Final Cut for Real.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing offers a harrowing look at the effects of the 1960s Indonesian genocide. In a wild turn of events, Oppenheimer gives screen time to the military agents who tortured and took the lives of innocent people. Allowing them to admit to and even reenact their terrible crimes.

The Act of Killing is a brutal film that showcases monsters reveling in their wicked crimes. Oppenheimer allows this to happen to highlight how mass psychosis and groupthink can lead to and glorify terrible actions. This heartbreaking film is a masterpiece in cinema but should not be seen by those who are weak of heart.

10. This Is Not a Film (2011)

Photo Credit: Jafar Panahi Film Productions.

Jafar Panahi created This is Not a Film while sentenced to house arrest by the Iranian government. However, this action only emboldened the film director, who used the operation to create a long-form video diary about the government’s actions.

Panahi spends most of the film wandering around his apartment, filming himself. Yet, the film delivers a staggering message about censorship and life in modern Iran. Panahi, still under house arrest, bravely smuggled the film out of his home in a cake and had it delivered to the Cannes Film Festival.

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11. O.J.: Made in America (2016)

Photo Credit: ESPN Films.

Ezra Edelmen’s O.J.: Made in America is an 8-hour film highlighting O.J. Simpson’s place within American pop culture. Eselmen starts with Simpson’s early football career and follows him throughout his fame, uncovering how O.J. felt he overcame blackness.

Edelmen goes on to explore how Simpson’s murder trial had little to do with the murders. In the American public eye, the trial was about the effects of racism and power. This documentary provides a great deep dive exposing the fact that no amount of power or fame will protect you from the institutionalized racism America still faces.

12. Time (2000)

Photo Credit: Amazon Studios.

Garrett Bradley’s Time is the culmination of footage shot by Sibil Richardson after her release from prison. In 1997, after Sibil and Rob Richardson’s hip-hop clothing store failed, the two robbed a bank to make ends meet. They were quickly arrested and sentenced to prison.

Sibil was released early to take care of the couple’s six children. She took this opportunity to film her family so that Rob could witness it from behind bars. This emotional story attracted filmmaker Garret Bradley, who combined the footage into a moving story about family and the prison industrial complex.

13. Stories We Tell (2013)

Photo Credit: Roadside Attractions.

Sarah Polley created Stories We Tell to make a living narrative of her mother, who died of cancer when Sarah was still a child. Polley interviews family members to create a timeline of events to catalog her mother’s life.

Although this isn’t a new premise, the film’s amateurish feel and personal attachment to it give Polley a creative advantage over similar documentaries. By the end, viewers are left with an ambiguous narrative with few hard facts. While that sounds disappointing, it reflects how we are genuinely remembered after we are gone.

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14. The Look of Silence (2015)

Photo Credit: Drafthouse Films.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s second entry on this list, The Look of Silence, is the follow-up film to The Act of Killing. Oppenheimer keeps his focus on the Indonesian genocide. However, this time, he chooses to focus on the survivors of the atrocity.

Oppenheimer manages to find a man named Adi, whose brother was murdered in the genocide. The two track down one of the men responsible for the act. The resulting film is just as tragic as the original but emphasizes the importance of telling the stories of those who have survived the horrors.

15. Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Photo Credit: MGM.

Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is a fearless deep dive into the American gun culture that allowed the Columbine massacre to happen. Using an everyman approach, Moore can take complex social issues and make them digestible for the masses. Bowling for Columbine delivers an essential message about fear, paranoia, and gun ownership.

16. Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Photo Credit: Paranoid Pictures.

Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop is a masterclass in subversion. The documentary is supposedly shot by Thierry Guetta, a video diarist who is a dear friend of the allusive street artist Banksy. However, audiences would be fair in guessing that the film is another elaborate prank set up by the mischievous artist. What follows is a pleasant game of cat and mouse between the film and its audience.

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17. Man on Wire (2008)

Photo Credit: Discovery Films.

James Marsh’s Man on Wire follows Philippe Petit as he transverses the Twin Towers on a wire. This awe-inspiring tale provides a picture of a man who refuses to be shackled by the fear of death. Petit’s infectious zest for life creates a story of danger that inspires viewers to live authentic, exciting lives.  

18. Don’t Leave Me (2013)

Photo Credit: Pieter Van Huystee Film and Television.

Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden take to the isolated forest of Wallonia for this dark comedy. Don’t Leave Me follows two grouchy men who have little else to do than complain and drink.

Marcel and Bob live in the isolated countryside. Their antics in life have ostracized them from everyone but each other. Don’t Leave Me creates a beautiful, if bleak, buddy film about two men who have nothing besides each other and time.

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19. Kate Plays Christine (2016)

Photo Credit: 4th Row Films.

Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine tells the story of the most striking event ever to be aired on television; the moment that news reporter Christine Chubbuck took her own life. On the morning of July 15, 1974, Chubbuck read the daily news, then calmly pulled out a gun and shot herself in the head on live television.

Video from the event has never resurfaced. This event fascinated Greene, and he set out to make a film depicting what may have happened on the set that fateful day. What surfaces is a harrowing look into life, death, and the ethics of TV journalism.

20. Fire at Sea (2016)

Photo Credit: Stemal Entertainment.

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea explores the heroic efforts that take place in the Mediterranean Sea. Lampedusa is a small island where migrants are rescued from Africa. Rosi showcases this effort by interviewing the workers and doctors who make it their mission to save lives. Fire at Sea is a harrowing effort to show audiences the real-life struggle beyond the headlines.

21. Procession (2021)

Photo Credit: 4th Row Films.

Robert Green’s Procession follows six middle-aged men who have all suffered abuse at the hands of the Catholic church. The men are attending a form of therapy in which they write and direct film reenactments of the abuse they have suffered.

This devastating tale offers a bit of heart as the survivors’ friendships are slowly unveiled. Procession can be challenging to watch at times. Still, it provides a powerful message about recovery, faith, and the ethics of filmmaking.

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Image Credit: 20th Century Fox.

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