Sustainability

28 Culturally Charged Documentaries To Challenge The Way You Think

By Jessica Best
10th Mar 2021

From social justice efforts to climate change rallies, the world is rife with individuals and communities challenging the status quo. And while sometimes it seems like there’s an overwhelmingly dark lens cast over the world, there’s actually a whole lot of good being done at a grassroots level for all kinds of causes and beliefs. 

Cue individual activists, collective communities and even the filmmakers who risk their lives to share a myriad of stories and voices—this is the list of documentaries that will seriously expand your peripherals, a visual feast for your mind, if you will.

Check out the most compelling documentaries to challenge the way you think.

Best Cultural Documentaries

One Of Us

One of Us explores the world of Hasidic Judaism through a slew of fascinating characters. For three years, acclaimed filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, Detropia) delve into the lives of three brave individuals who have recently made the decision to leave the insular ultra-orthodox community at the expense of all else, including relationships with their family members and their personal safety. 

Embrace

Embrace is a social impact documentary that explores the serious issue of body loathing, inspiring us to change the way we feel about ourselves and think about our bodies. Released in 2016, this documentary is still just as relevant, relatable, highly engaging and above all — life changing. Nominated for the Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Best Documentary, Embrace has already been seen by millions of people across the world and has created a ripple of positive change.

The Australian Dream

Perhaps one of the most important documentaries made in 2019, The Australian Dream is a doco that prompts big questions about Australia’s relationship with racism and its ability to confront its own past and warning—it’s not pretty. Written by the incredible Stan Grant, this documentary focuses on two-time Brownlow medallist and Australian of the Year, Adam Goodes, who became the target of racial abuse during an AFL game back in 2013. It was the moment that truly stopped Australia and begged wider questions into what it actually means to be an Australian.

Featuring Goodes and all the key players from his story, including Grant, Michael O’Loughlin, Brett Goodes, Natalie Goodes, Tracey Holmes, Nova Peris, Nicky Winmar, Gilbert McAdam, Linda Burney, Paul Roos, John Longmire, Nathan Buckley, Eddie McGuire and Andrew Bolt, this is a must-watch documentary which changed the discourse in Australia forever.

Athlete A 

Athlete A follows a team of reporters from The Indianapolis Star as they investigate claims of abuse at USA Gymnastics, one of America’s most prominent Olympic organisations. Two years later, Olympic doctor Larry Nassar is behind bars, the US Congress is demanding answers and hundreds of survivors are speaking out. Equal parts devastating and inspiring, the doco reveals the culture of cruelty that was allowed to thrive within elite-level gymnastics, the attorney fighting the institutions, and most importantly, the brave athletes who refuse to be silenced, fought the system and triumphed. Keep the tissues close for this one, it’s easily one of the best documentaries of all time.

In My Blood It Runs

Shot in and around the Northern Territory over three-and-a-half years, In My Blood It Runs follows 10-year-old Dujuan and his family and it needs to go straight to the top of your must-watch list. Told through the eyes of Dujuan—a cheeky, charismatic Arrernte boy—the audience gets an intimate look at how the government and education system are failing Aboriginal youth. For some context, in the NT young people are imprisoned at a rate three times higher than the rest of the country and at the time of filming every child incarcerated in the territory was Aboriginal.

In the doco, we watch as Dujuan, who is a child-healer and speaks three languages, is expelled from his school and travels perilously close to incarceration. Over the course of the film, Dujuan grapples with the pressure to balance both his western and Arrernte education, but somewhere in-between finds space to dream and hope for a bright future. His musings will blow your mind—he’s wise beyond his years.

Rising Phoenix

Easily one of the best docos of 2020, put Rising Phoenix at the top of your must-watch list stat. This tear-jerker tells the extraordinary story of the Paralympic Games—from the rubble of World War II to the third biggest sporting event on the planet, it sparked a global movement which continues to change the way the world thinks about disability, diversity and human potential. In Rising Phoenix elite athletes and insiders reflect on the Paralympic Games and examine how they have impacted society’s understanding of disability. Athletes featured in the film include a slew of super inspiring humans like Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole and wheelchair rugby player Ryley Batt. There’s also moving chats with French sprinter Jean-Baptiste Alaize, American archery legend Matt Stutzman and Chinese powerlifter Cui Zhe—so keep the tissues close.

The Square

A Netflix original documentary, The Square is a riveting, deeply human chronicle of the Egyptian protest movement from the 2011 overthrow of military leader Hosni Mubarak through the ousting of Mohammed Morsi in 2013. It’s overwhelmingly gut-wrenching but a necessity to watch at the same time.

Best Documentaries About Climate Change 

2040

The award-winning director that changed our lives with That Sugar Film, Damon Gameau, has mastered a documentary that reveals what our world could look like in 2040. Gameau presents a series of solutions to improving our at-risk environment, illustrating how – if accepted by mainstream schools of thought, they could help to regenerate and preserve the planet for future generations. You can also read our interview with Damon Gameau here.

Our Planet

Narrated by Sir David Attenborough, this eight-part series will explore the unique and precious wonders of our natural world from the creators of the award-winning series Planet Earth. In partnership with World Wildlife Fund, Our Planet combines stunning photography and technology with an unprecedented, never-before-filmed look at the planet’s remaining wilderness areas and their animal inhabitants. The ambitious four-year project has been filmed in 50 countries across all the continents of the world, with over 600 members of crew capturing more than three and a half thousand filming days, and focuses on the breadth of the diversity of habitats around the world, from the remote Arctic wilderness and mysterious deep oceans to the vast landscapes of Africa and diverse jungles of South America.

Before The Flood

Before the Flood, presented by National Geographic, features Leonardo DiCaprio on a journey as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, travelling to five continents and the Arctic to witness climate change firsthand. He goes on expeditions with scientists uncovering the reality of climate change and meets with political leaders fighting against inaction. He also discovers a calculated disinformation campaign orchestrated by powerful special interests working to confuse the public about the urgency of the growing climate crisis. With unprecedented access to thought leaders around the world, DiCaprio searches for hope in a rising tide of catastrophic news.

An Idiot’s Guide To Climate Change

There’s not a lot you can’t love about Dwight Schrute. His confidence meets semi-clueless personality can only be endearing at the best of times and now, The Office star, who you really know as Rainn Wilson is taking to YouTube in a documentary series on climate change.

The docuseries has been dubbed An Idiot’s Guide To Climate Change (if you’re a true Office stan, you’ll get the Dwight reference), and it comes in hot from Wilson’s content studio SoulPancake. The six-part series is hosted by Wilson as well and documents his mission to learn more about climate change, and his transformation from “uninformed liberal” to strident climate activist.

Cowspiracy

This is the doco that all former meat-eaters will tell you was the turning point for their commitment to a plant-based lifestyle. In an age where environmental awareness is key, this doco links animal agriculture with a plethora of ecological issues like climate change, water shortages and ocean dead zones. Cowspiracy presents a case for the impact that animal farming is having on the environment, and will have you thinking twice about digging into your next steak.

Best Documentaries About Social Justice

13th

The title of Ava DuVernay’s documentary refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads—“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Cut to the horrors of mass criminalisation and the sprawling American prison industry, this documentary features a potent mix of archival footage and testimony from activists, politicians, historians, and formerly incarcerated women and men. This documentary will shake you to your core and make you challenge your ideas about race and justice in America today.

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

Down the road from Woodstock, a revolution blossomed in a ramshackle summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, transforming their lives and igniting a landmark movement. Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution is an untold story co-directed by Emmy Award winner Nicole Newnham and film mixer and former camper Jim LeBrecht (its executive producers being President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama), and looks at the path forged by the camp’s members to help build a movement towards greater equality.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

This documentary is a focused take on the outrageous and brilliant women who founded the modern women’s movement from 1966 to 1971. It’ll take you through the founding of NOW, with ladies in hats and gloves, to the emergence of more radical factions of women’s liberation;  from intellectuals like Kate Millett to the street theatrics of WITCH (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!). Expect controversies over race, sexual preference and leadership that arose in the women’s movement and a perfect capture of the spirit of the time which was very much thrilling, scandalous, and sometimes just downright hilarious.

Best Documentaries About Activists

I Am Greta

By now, you’re very much aware of how the world’s current climate strikes came to be so mammoth and so widespread—Greta Thunberg.

The teenage activist sparked worldwide traction back in 2018 when she stopped going to school every Friday and sat outside the Swedish parliament as part of a climate strike. She’s become the face and voice of a generation demanding mass climate changes, she’s led the world’s biggest climate strike and given memorable speeches to the UN and congresses all over the world.

Her story has never been anything short of inspiring and the now 17-year-old powerhouse has dropped one hell of a documentary with never-before-seen footage. The doco starts with her one-person school strike for climate action outside the Swedish Parliament and Swedish director Nathan Grossman follows Greta—a shy student with Asperger’s—in her rise to prominence and her galvanising global impact as she sparks school strikes around the world. 

Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower

When the Chinese Communist Party alters its promise of complete autonomy to Hong Kong, handed back to the Chinese government from British rule in 1997, teenager Joshua Wong decides to fight for his country. Rallying thousands of kids to skip school and occupy the streets, and without a long-term plan but with a whole heap of passion to spare, Joshua becomes an unlikely hero in Hong Kong. 

Hooligan Sparrow

This incredible documentary follows maverick activist Ye Haiyan (AKA Hooligan Sparrow) and her band of colleagues to Hainan Province in southern China to protest the case of six elementary school girls who were sexually abused by their principal. They’re marked as enemies of the state and fall under extreme government surveillance facing interrogation, harassment, and imprisonment. 

He Named Me Malala

Anyone and everyone should see He Named Me Malala at least once in their lifetime. This one is an intimate documentary on Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban and severely wounded by a gunshot when returning home on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The then 15-year-old was singled out, along with her father, for advocating for girls’ education, and the attack on her sparked an outcry from supporters around the world. She miraculously survived and is now a leading campaigner for girls’ education globally as co-founder of the Malala Fund.

Best Documentaries About Women

Miss Representation

Miss Representation explores women's under-representation in positions of power and influence and challenges the limited and often disparaging portrayals of women in media. This is an absolute must-watch and though it’s based in the US, its relevance absolutely extends across the globe to give us an inside look at the media's messaging when it comes to women. This doco takes a look at how mainstream media, as one of the most persuasive and pervasive forces of communication in our culture, is educating yet another generation that a woman's primary value lies in her youth, beauty and sexuality—not in her capacity as a leader.

Period. End Of Sentence

Look no further than one of the biggest films of 2019. We mean, it won a dang Oscar so it’s obviously on this list. It was one of the biggest steals at the 91st Academy Awards where Rayka Zehtabchi became the first Iranian-American woman to win an Oscar for her short film documentary Period. End Of Sentence. 

The 26-minute doco focuses on a village outside Delhi, India, where a group of women aim to revolutionise the stigma around menstruation. For generations, these women didn’t have access to pads (with 23 per cent of girls dropping out of school when they get their periods) but when a sanitary pad machine is installed in the area, they learn to manufacture their own pads and fight for menstruation equality.

Reversing Roe

As probably one of the most mind-blowing docos out there on women’s health rights, Reversing Roe unfolds the state of abortion and women’s rights in America. Roe v. Wade was a landmark case that kickstarted a new era for women and unleashed laws that sought to protect a pregnant woman's liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. However, it’s one of the most controversial cases in US history that is constantly at a crossroad with many trying to (and successfully) reverse women’s health freedoms.

Feminists What Were They Thinking

For an absolute showdown on the history of the global feminist movement which took-off during the 1970s, try your hand at Feminists What Were They Thinking. It’s a Netflix Original and it takes a deep dive into how the movement came about (and what events triggered its collective trajectory) and into a collection of feminist portraits captured by photographer Cynthia MacAdams. It’s now 40 years later, and Feminists What Were They Thinking compares the culture of then and now.

Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On

No, it’s not “just” a documentary about the porn industry. Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On is a deep dive into the intersection of sex and technology told through the people creating porn and consuming it on the reg. While porn admittedly isn’t for everyone, the documentary shows how polarising it is for culture.

RBG

At the age of 84, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has developed a breathtaking legal legacy while becoming an unexpected but much-needed pop culture icon. However, before this documentary, Ginsburg was without a biography or historical recording of all her efforts (unless you watched the dramatised version of her life On The Basis Of Sex). RBG shows this quiet warrior’s rise to America’s highest court and it’s one that everyone needs to watch at least once in their life. 

Best LGBQTI+ Documentaries

Disclosure 

This doco delivers an unprecedented and eye-opening look at transgender depictions in film and television, revealing how Hollywood simultaneously reflects and manufactures our deepest anxieties about gender. Leading trans thinkers and creatives, including Laverne Cox, Lilly Wachowski, Yance Ford, MJ Rodriguez, Jamie Clayton, and Chaz Bono, share their reactions and resistance to some of Hollywood’s most beloved moments. Reframing familiar scenes and iconic characters in a new light, director Sam Feder invites viewers to confront unexamined assumptions, and shows how what once captured the public’s imagination now elicit new feelings. This one is an absolute must-watch. 

Stonewall Forever

The history of the Stonewall Riots is equally as cherished as it is charged. There are questions of who was there, who "threw the first brick" and who can claim Stonewall. This doco doesn’t answer these questions but instead it aims to expand the story of Stonewall by including more voices in its telling by bringing together people from over 50 years of LGBTQ activism to explore the ongoing legacy of Stonewall.

Paris Is Burning

While the word “iconic” definitely gets thrown around a lot, Paris Is Burning is a seriously iconic documentary in every damn way. Filmed in the 80s, it records the ball culture (think the start of drag culture) and all the African-American, Latino, gay and tran communities who built it. It’s long been hailed as a landmark historical perspective into how voguing actually started and where “throwing shade” really derived from.

Welcome To Chechnya

Welcome to Chechnya is a behind the scenes of the Russian Republic’s deadly war on gays. The documentary shadows a group of activists who risk it all to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ pogrom raging in the repressive and closed Russian republic. Since 2017, Chechnya’s tyrannical leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, has waged an actual operation to “cleanse the blood” of LGBTQ in Chechnya, overseeing a government-directed campaign to detain, torture and execute them. With no help from the Kremlin and only some global attention.

And here's how you can actually help end gay conversion therapy once and for all.

Image credit: Netflix

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