21 Good Social & Cultural Documentaries Movies to Watch

A documentary that is immediate and plays out like a thriller. Beautifully shot in Virunga National Park in the Eastern Congo, the story focuses on the struggles between Park Rangers and a list of adversaries including poachers, oil company goons, and an Islamic revolutionary army. The stories of the endangered gorillas and the people who struggle to protect them will break your heart and at the same time give you hope in humanity. On top of this, the editing is superb and gives the film an intensity that rivals any recent thriller.

An Academy Award nominated documentary about the genocide committed against nearly a million "communists" in Indonesia in 1965. Still in power, the paramilitary of Indonesia commonly known as the gangsters, call themselves "free men" and glorify their acts of government-sanctioned blatant extortion and heinous cruelty while the film cleverly juxtaposes them against the nation's scarred history. The corruption, fear and violence that characterizes the figures of authority in the Indonesian military government are revealed in a raw manner in the film. As its name suggests, the film will take you through the actual act of forcing a human to die. The gangsters that committed all those murders speak about and recreate the gruesome details of the circumstances, methods and experience of taking a life. Even more interestingly, they explore whether they believed it to be the right thing and how their conscience copes with the aftermath. In its dark and abstract ways, it will have you question what you know not only about war crimes and government corruption, but on a much grander plane, about the treatment of the truth in history.

In the grand tradition of the ethnographic world tours like Mondo Cane, Samsara hits you in the face with the diversity and wonder of human life on earth. Unlike many of its predecessors, which often descended into colonialist gawping, Samara maintains a non judgmental gaze. This film uses no words or narration to travel the world showing you the breathtaking beauty of various countries, cultures, religions, cities, industries and nature. Shot on 70mm film, the definition and clarity has to be seen to be believed.

What happens when Banksy, one of the most famous ambassadors of street art, meets Mr. Brainwash, an egocentric aspiring French artist? Well, one of the funniest, interesting and exciting documentaries ever made about art, commercialism and the apparent gulf between them. But is it really a documentary? This confident and zany film will leave you guessing.

A striking and revelatory documentary focused on the behaviour of captive Orcas and their treatment within SeaWorld and other theme parks around the world. At the center of the story is Tilikum, a bull Orca that has been responsible for the death of three individuals, and the legal and ethical challenges that have arisen from apparent cover-ups by officials. What happened to Tilikum to make him adopt such behavior? First-hand accounts by former whale trainers and experts deliver fascinating truths about Tilikum and the species as whole, with particular attention on their remarkable intelligence and advanced social behaviors. Blackfish will undoubtedly change your perspective on whale captivity indefinitely. It’s certainly not to be missed by anyone who appreciates top-notch documentary film-making as honest historical record.

In a stunning (re)introduction to James Baldwin, intellectual, author, and social critic, this movie digs very deep into the American subconscious and racial history. It is based off a book idea that would have studied the famous assassinations of three of Baldwin's friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., he wrote about 30 pages of it before he passed away in 1987. Raoul Peck picked up the project and made it into this movie, highlighting at the same time Baldwin's genius, his unique and always eloquent perspective as well as the beauty of his soul as a human being. A mesmerizing experience, it is an immensely sad fact that the narrative still feels as relevant now as it was in 1979, and as such this movie serves as a reminder on how far America still has to go.

This surprising documentary follows Jiro, an 85 year old Japanese chef, his Michelin-starred restaurant in the Tokyo underground, and his eager sons. While ostensibly about sushi – and believe me, you’ll learn about sushi and see absolutely gorgeous images of the raw-fish creations – the film’s dramatic impetus is carried by the weight of tradition, the beauty of a labor of love, obsession, and the relationship between father and son. Truly a must-watch.

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