Documentaries are often controversial and rarely shown on network television-probably because they often offend network sponsors. Documentaries are "behind the scene" accounts of powerful institutions, systems and corporations. They inform and inspire.
Here are twelve of my favorite documentaries. They are not ranked in any particular order, but I did attempt to cover a spectrum of subjects. I would consider these to be "must see" documentaries, as they provide perspective and present injustice. I also added some others that I enjoyed that are similar to my favorite.
1. The Corporation. This classic documentary tackles the legal and historical aspect of American corporations. It presents ideas about corporate influence, constitutional standing and, of course, corporate power. Others: Roger and Me, Who Killed the Electric Car?
2. Food Inc. This film tackles the world of agribusiness. It is a behind the scene look at how food is produced, those that produce it and the money at stake. It looks at genetically modified food, the ownership of seeds, and the lengths that agribusiness will go in order to protect their financial interests. Finally it presents the deceit offered to the American public-from advertising to perception-of what food production is really like. The family farms featuring red barns, rolling hills of pasture, and happy cows are a thing of the past. Others: Processed People, King Corn, Got the Facts on Milk?
3. The God Who Wasn't There. A controversial look at the historic Jesus. The documentary makes the argument that the birth of Jesus is strikingly similar to other previous mythological figures, such as Dionysus. It also provides a historic timeline, which notes that the Gospels were written considerably after the purported life and death of Jesus. Others: Religulous
4. Sicko. Michael Moore's attack on the healthcare system was the vicious target of the healthcare industry. They were terrified that this movie would inspire the American public to rise up against the financial interest of the healthcare industry. If you do not know what a "dead peasant" insurance policy is, you should see this movie.
5. Forks over Knives. The latest in a series of documentaries to promote the healthy lifestyle of a whole food, plant-based diet. It received mainstream attention and has inspired many to drop meat and dairy from their diet-for not only personal health, but also to reduce the cost of healthcare. Others: Fat Sick and Nearly Dead, Eating, Supersize Me, Killer at Large: Why Obesity is America's Greatest Threat.
6. War on Democracy. This political film suggested that the United States has participated-either directly or indirectly-in 50 government overthrows, many of them democracies, since 1945. A ranting and defiant CIA leader claimed it was all in "national security interest." What he meant was the financial interest of the United States and its major corporations. Others: Capitalism: A Love Story, Darfur Now.
7. Fahrenheit 9/11. Another Michael Moore movie makes the list. This movie attacked President Bush, the Iraq War and the War on Terrorism. Although considered very partisan, it is the highest grossing documentary of all time. Not only was it the only movie I watched in a packed theater, it was also the only time I have ever seen a movie get a standing ovation. Others: Manufacturing Dissent: Noam Chomsky
8. Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore famously takes on climate change in this documentary. While I have criticized Gore for neglecting to mention the biggest cause of global warming-eating meat-Gore did bring a lot of information about climate change to the general public. Others: The 11th Hour, Mann v. Ford.
9. Waiting for Superman. This recent film tackles the American educational system. It looks at the power of the teacher's union and the difficulty of initiating change from a system's perspective. It notes the success of some charter schools and the desperation of some families, in economically depressed areas, to get their children admitted. It is enlightening, even if it ignores the failure of many charter schools. Others: Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk, College Inc.
10. The End of Poverty? One of any number of socio-economic films that notes the disparity between the world's richest and those living in poverty. While people are often aware of these disparities, it is uncomfortable to watch just how poor some cultures are. Equally appalling is the political and corporate abuse of these cultures. For many, just clean drinking water is a luxury. Others: Maxed Out.
11. The Cove. A horrifying and tearful look at the Japanese hunting of Dolphins. It's difficult to even write a couple of sentences in review of this film without experiencing despair and anger. It represents the worst in human treatment toward these beautiful and intelligent animals. Others: Peaceable Kingdom, Fowl Play.
12. Inside Job. Academy Award winning film on the global economic crisis of 2008. It is as disgusting as it is infuriating. Largely non-partisan, it outlines the financial crisis in a way that is easy for everyone to understand. Maintaining a Wall Street v. Main Street perspective, it's a must see.
Each of these films, in their own way, challenges the status quo. The institutions they protest are large and powerful. They exist because either people do not know what it going on, do not care what is going on, or feel powerless to stop it.
In Food Inc., they remind viewers that people can make a difference-"we vote with our wallet." Whether it is the food industry, our education system or the current healthcare crisis, we can inspire change by refusing to support that which is driven by greed or corruption rather than principle. It is on us.