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What to watch next: The best documentaries to educate, inspire and entertain

From hard-hitting exposés to powerful personal tales, broaden your horizons with these fascinating documentary films

The current pandemic may have literally made captive viewers of us all, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use that screen time wisely – there are a whole host of brilliant documentaries on offer for you to stream right now. So if you’re looking for inspiration on how to enlighten yourself during lockdown, why not try one from this list of our favourites? From moments in time that shaped society to the hidden stories that need to be told, there’s something to entertain everyone. Fashion more your thing? Don’t miss our round-up of the best sartorially-focused documentaries.

Crip Camp

This rousing documentary met critical acclaim at Sundance this year, and with its poignant humour and revealing insights, it’s easy to see why. Shining a light on a struggle so few people consider, Crip Camp starts with the story of Camp Janed – a free-spirited camp in Catskills, New York for adolescents with disabilities. Revealing the impact this extraordinary summer camp had on its residents, the documentary shows how many of these teens went on to be influential political campaigners for disability groups, many of whom are still fighting for accessibility and recognition today.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

A Secret Love

A 60-year-long relationship sits at the centre of this moving Netflix documentary about forbidden love. After hiding their homosexuality for decades by pretending to simply be ‘good friends’, octogenarians Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel come out to their families and decided to get married. Terry was 22 years old and working as a professional basketball player when she met 18-year-old Pat, the woman who would be the love of her life – a story this documentary unpicks, exploring the fear and shame experienced by so many members of the older gay community, as well as the love that ultimately wins out.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

13th

If you were a fan of Ava DuVernay’s incredible docu-drama When They See Us about the Central Park Five, then don’t miss 13th – her riveting documentary about the American prison system. Taking its name from the 13th amendment in the American constitution, which outlaws slavery except for as a form of punishment, DuVernay shows how this loophole is still being exploited. Brimming with salient facts and figures about the links between slavery and the US penal system, this shocking documentary explores “the mythology of black criminality”, making it important viewing both inside and outside the United States.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation

As events go, few hold such legendary status as Woodstock – the hippy concert of a lifetime. In 1969, half a million people descended on a small dairy farm in upstate New York looking for some escapism from a political landscape dominated by civil rights, sexual politics and the Vietnam War. Despite the rain, lack of food and copious drugs, what took place there was a physical manifestation of the “peace and love” ideals of 1960s counterculture – miraculous given the circumstances. This nostalgic documentary looks at the impact of Woodstock – three historic days that would spark a cultural revolution.
Available through Amazon
amazon.co.uk

One of Us

If you were as mesmerised as we were by Unorthodox – Netflix’s adaptation of Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir featuring break-out star Shira Haas – you’ll undoubtedly want to watch One of Us next. This documentary examines the lives of three ex-Hasidic Jews from Brooklyn and the ostracism, anxiety and danger they face as they attempt to leave their Orthodox communities. But as well as examining the trauma and abuse they receive, One of Us also looks at the how hard it is to adapt to secular society after years of blind faith.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

Becoming: Michelle Obama

This intimate documentary takes a close-up look at the life of the woman who became the first black woman to hold the position of First Lady of the United States, as she travels the country on her book tour. Michelle Obama has long been hailed as an inspirational figure for women everywhere, but this documentary aims to help the world better understand the motivational icon she has become. Expect notable guest appearances, including Oprah Winfrey and her daughters Sasha and Malia, interspersed between the biographical narrative, as well as plenty of Michelle’s trademark rousing messaging, making for some uplifting viewing.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

If you’re looking for the millennial version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, this cautionary tale about the power of social media to deceive might just be it. Billed as a “transformative experience”, luxury music festival Fyre had been promoted on social media and endorsed by A-list names such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Hailey Baldwin for months. Yet while the private island setting in the Bahamas, complete with luxury villas, celebrity chefs, free-flowing champagne and a wellness centre, looked like the dream, the reality turned out to be more like a Hunger Games-style nightmare. A truly extraordinary tale.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

The Great Hack 

While most people have heard of the name Cambridge Analytica, the true story behind the data scandal that catapulted the brand to fame still remains murky. British investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr teams up with Parson’s Professor David Carroll and former employee Brittany Kaiser to expose the truth behind just how exactly Cambridge Analytica’s work influenced the politics of numerous countries, including the UK’s Brexit campaign and the US’s 2016 presidential elections, which resulted in Trump coming to power. An alarming glimpse into the way data can be weaponised today.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

Icarus

While doping might be old news in the world of sport – just look at how the Lance Armstrong scandal put it on the mainstream radar – the concept of state-sponsored doping programmes still has the ability to shock. This is what amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel uncovered when he set out to prove just how easy it was to evade the testing system to compete using chemical enhancement in his documentary, Icarus. After asking Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre, for help, Fogel got Rodchenkov to admit on camera that Russia has been using underhand techniques to help their athletes to victory. The result was one of the biggest scandals in sport for decades and a documentary that’s as much a thriller as an exposé
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

Blackfish

This BAFTA-nominated documentary follows the story of Tilikum, an orca who performed at the controversial SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. Having been captured in Iceland in 1983, Tilikum spent the rest of his life in captivity – an experience that Blackfish explores. To date, only four people have ever been killed by orcas in captivity, yet three of these deaths involved Tilikum. This passionate, heart-breaking documentary exposes the psychological damage that causes captive orcas to become unnaturally aggressive – a revelation that caused attendance to SeaWorld shows to drop dramatically.
Available on YouTube
youtube.com

The Game Changers 

Despite its growing popularity, the practicality and efficacy of veganism are still up for debate within the world of sport. The Game Changers sets out to change that by taking a look at the benefits of a plant-based diet for athletes, exploring the success stories of people who practice it. Following former UFC fighter James Wilks as he searches for a way to recover from injury through nutrition, expect stars like Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger to make appearances. The documentary has proved controversial, with critics claiming scientific inaccuracies and pseudoscience-led information, but it’s well worth a watch for those intrigued by the concept of plant-based nutrition.
Available on YouTube
youtube.com

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

In her own raspy tones, poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou narrates the story of her life, from her brutal childhood in the South to her emergence as a prominent figure in black American self-empowerment in this biographical documentary. The story of how she became one of America’s finest writers is a harrowing one – after being raped, Angelou didn’t speak for five years – but it’s also an empowering narrative of a woman finding her voice. Featuring rare photographs and videos illustrating her remarkable life, this is unmissable viewing.
Available on Apple TV
itunes.apple.com

Knock Down the House

Hailed as the story of a ‘historic moment’, Knock Down The House follows four female Democrats as they campaign in the 2016 mid-terms. In the spotlight are Cori Bush – the woman who believes Missouri’s seats in the House of Representatives should reflect the state’s diversity more accurately – and Amy Vilela, Nevada’s political crusader who wants a healthcare overhaul after insurance complications led to the death of her daughter. Meanwhile, West Virginia’s Paula Jean Swearengin ran to cleanse her community of the pollution choking it and Bronx bartender Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stepped up into the world of politics for social justice. A rousing watch.
Available on Netflix
netflix.com

Main image: A Secret Love
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