Being in the World
This documentary is first on this list for one simple reason: Experiencing this film opens up a new paradigm for understanding the world, a perspective from which you can understand all the other documentaries in a profound new way. Based on the monumental book ‘What Computers Can’t Do’ by philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, this documentary is an immersive experience, a piece of art that gives us a glimpse into the lives of masters and their crafts. We taste the work of, amongst others, a traditional Japanese woodworker, a Spanish flamenco singer and a Jazz musician, while being served a side-dish of deep philosophical insights on what it means to be human in an ever more technologized world. Trust me, watch this one first.
We always suspected it, but now we know for sure. The most powerful intelligence agencies in this world can spy on literally everything we do, retracing every digital footstep we ever took whilst trying to predict everything we will do next. Knowing that someone could be watching you right now probably gives rise to a particular feeling of uncanniness. But after watching Citizenfour, this feeling easily transmutes into pure terror. In this truly one of a kind and thrilling documentary, we see the first moment of cautious contact between whistleblower Edward Snowden, the man who risked his life and gave up his future to expose the unlawful behaviour of the NSA and friends, and the only two people he trusted enough to cover this story uncorrupted, documentary maker Laura Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald. By watching this documentary you won’t see mainstream media and political figures in the same light ever again.
Connections: An Alternative View of Change
This documentary series on technology is what cosmos is for science. Connections carefully excavates the unexpected and unintended trajectory of human inventions. Contrary to popular belief, technology doesn’t progress in linear fashion, from one new iteration of a machine to another, periodically updated when new knowledge and techniques open up new possibilities. Looking back, we only see the survivors, the adopted and widespread versions. We don’t see their brothers and sisters with short life expectancies and the failed marriages from which they sprang forth. If we did, by watching Connections for example, we would see the advancements made by hidden interconnections, unbeknownst to their first maker what their future would hold. This addictive documentary unveils that change is deeply unpredictable and that much of our past, if not all, has come about due to random encounters.
Neurons to Nirvana
At the heart of the psychedelic renaissance there is a scientific discovery that could change our whole current paradigm of consciousness. While investigating the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, researchers have stumbled upon the fact that for such an experience to be fruitful, it needs to be transformative. While there are dose-respondent effects, the most important insight is that the more mystical an experience was for the patient, the more meaningful it was and the more healing they got. Whilst sometimes a bit too pro-psychedelics and anti-corporate drugs, Neurons to Nirvana shows the beauty of finding new medicinal potentials for crippling mental diseases, like depression, addiction, PTSD and social anxiety. If you’re interested in the place where science and spirituality meet, or are just curious about psychedelics, watch this documentary.
Many minds have fundamentally been changed by the documentary ‘Century of the Self’, which tells the story of how the process of individualization was hijacked and sold back by corporations, perfecting the art of marketing in the process. And now its director, Adam Curtis, has come out with an explosive take on the spectacle of global affairs. Bitter Lake is part experimental, part personal investigation, and part haunting critique of the incompetence of modern politics. Taking Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia as its primary focus, Curtis in his unique style shows that those who pretend to lead us can’t understand the complexity of our situation any longer, and that modern media, by processing the raw material of events through infinite filters, removes the most important thing, the emotional truth of the situation. This amazing documentary is the antidote to the stories those in power force feed us.
The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
If you want a wildly speculative, deeply thought provoking, and unforgettably distressing documentary, then this one tops the list. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek, neurotically brilliant, psycho-analyses the hidden subliminal messages Hollywood movies convey to us. From the titanic to batman, Žižek never fails to deliver a devastating critique of our current capitalistic ideology, implying that changing just ourselves is simply not enough if we want to overcome our nearing global destruction and ecological collapse. Difficult, witty and sometimes outright hilarious, this is a movie to watch more than once.
Not a documentary in the strictest sense of the word, but an informative nourishment for the mind nonetheless. If you want more meaning in your life, you worry too much, or think spirituality is a bunch of non-sense, then give this series of entertaining and insightful lectures a go. Neuroscientist Sam Harris clearly outlines the spiritual concepts of Buddhism and Vedanta, translates them into personal stories on what they mean for him, and eloquently shows how you, too, can live a fuller life with more freedom. The question and answers at the end are worth viewing it alone, and makes for an amazing companion to his exceptional book of the same name. If you ever wanted to wake up to a higher existence, listen to Sam!
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Cave of Forgotten Dreams
In a fully preserved cave in France, in which the general public is barred from entering, paintings by our very own ancestors show a world long forgotten. The dawn of mankind. Some of the intricate pieces of art are over 32.000 years old and depict cave lions, bears, horses, bison, mammoth and other beasts of the Palaeolithic era, with such a breathing aliveness that time travel is made unnecessary. Amongst the stalactites and stalagmites lies the remaining bones of the very animals that adourn the limestone walls. A lonely hand print in red expresses a universal human tendency that cannot be clearly defined. Mesmerizing, magical, and moving, this documentary can be summed up with the words of the women who was amongst the group of 3 who discovered this time capsule first in 1994, ‘They were here!’
Are All Men Pedophiles?
As with any sensitive taboo subject, this documentary needs to be approached with an open mind, before any prejudgments cloud your emotional landscape. Contrary what a superficial viewing might reveal, this documentary doesn’t condone pedophilia. On the contrary. It is undeniable that we live in a time where girls are sexualized, regardless of their age. And, hypocritically, there is also a trend visible that all men are considered as potential pedophiles. We know such attraction exists, and can possibly point to our own evolution to find the why, yet its stigmatized in such a way no public debate is possible. Travelling through cultures from past to present, Are All Men Pedophiles? is a polarizing and demanding crash course in human sexuality, one that by staying true to the question mark, provides more questions than answers. Watch this one if you want to challenge your own white and black thinking and increase the fuzziness of your own symbolic world.
The complexity of life, in its never-ending struggle to fight the inevitable entropic decay, has found beautiful, almost poetic ways of hunting and consuming energy and matter. Colorful, ambitious, and dramatic, the documentary Life is full of televized firsts, showing, amongst others, unique dolphin hunting methods and komodo dragons using venom to kill. With sustained patience, the Life crew was able to film nature’s greatest moments, where terror and grace meet, and succeeded to show that all lifeforms, in the brutal struggle to survive, go to extraordinary lengths to stay alive. If you are building a collection, this magnificent documentary should definitely be in there.
There is something fascinating about (western) man’s unquenchable thirst to improve himself, either over his former self, or over his contemporary adversaries. To get to the literal or figurative top, and doing it better, faster or with more swag than anyone else who has come before. Packed in an over an hour long documentary, Valley Uprising shows us the evolution of a daring sport that is too easily caricatured as people having a death-wish. We follow the pioneers of rock-climbing (Goldenage) and see the world through a progression of the Stonemasters era (1973-1980) and the so-called “Stone Monkey” era (1998-present), from the believe that certain climbs are impossible, to doing it in three weeks time, to doing it in a few hours without ropes. Want to experience why climbers use magnesium to combat sweaty hands? Watch Valley Uprising.
If anything, this list of documentaries can attest to the incredible capabilities of the human organism. Given sufficient training it seems there is little we can’t do. Yet, when it comes internal ‘movements’, like blood flow, temperature control, and our immune system, most of us remain largely skeptical. It is said these are out of reach of the human mind. It took many scientific publications on the extraordinary effects of meditation before it gained any credibility and acceptance. I believe that it will be similar with the powerful technique Wim – The Iceman – Hof developed. This is a personal look into the live of a pioneer who had to overcome not just the cold, but mountains of ridicule to arrive at any form of acceptance. Watch this short documentary if you want to get inspired to walk barefoot in the snow, take cold showers, and become an overall badass of life.
The Culture High
From the makers of the cult classic ‘The Union: The Business Behind Getting High’ now comes an in-depth look into the corporate motivates behind the war on drugs, the consequences of prohibition, and what a future might look like when we untangle the smoke and mirrors discourse around the cannabis plant. It could be argued that The Culture High attempted to cover too much ground, yet, the complexity of our situation today warrants a story that shows all angles of how the status-quo benefits from the entrenched and backwards ways in which we deal with altered states of consciousness, the stigmatization of drug users, and the peculiar framing of the drug debate by the mainstream media. You guessed it, watch this one high af.
The Secret Life of Chaos
What is the butterfly effect? How can a universe starts off as dust and end up teeming with intelligent life? How does ever more intricate complexity emerge from disorder? Mindbending and counterintuitive, Professor Al-Klalili explores the beauty of chaos-theory, how it helps explain a myriad of natural phenomena and the significance of fractals. Thinking from first principles, The Secret Life of Chaos explains why the phrase ‘anarchy is order’ works in physics. This is an absolute must-see documentary, and I promise you that you will see every complex process in a completely new light after.
The Fog of War
It should be mandatory to watch this documentary before having any political discussion ever. Filmed through the unique invention called the “Interrotron,” an interrogation device that allows two people to look into each other’s eyes whilst also looking directly into the camera, The Fog of War is a direct, uncanny and intimate interview with Robert McNamara, who held the powerful role of Secretary of Defence during the Cuban missile crisis and the Vietnam war. Mcnamara talks openly about mankind and reveals the painfully tragicness of human nature which is captured best in the statement of philosopher Hegel, that “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.” If you are interested in seeing one of the most powerful men in recent history confess what he knew and did, look no further.
Alone in the Wilderness
This gorgeous documentary is a guided meditation to craftsmanship, timelessness and our deep connection with nature. Deeply relaxing, watching this documentary is bound to fill you with a deep longing and nostalgia. Dick Proenneke decided to survive a year in solitude in the wilderness of Alaska while he filmed himself. He didn’t leave another thirty years. He hunted, fished, raised and gathered his own food, build his own tools and cabin, and flowed with the rhythm of the seasons and animals. As a truly masterful artisan Proenneke teaches us wise lessons of patience and resilience while poetically voicing a, perhaps too romantic, ideal of the individual single-handedly carving out an existence in the harsh and unforgiving natural world. Yet, Alone in the Wilderness a powerful reminder that we should stop hurrying and learn the ability to focus without distraction on deep and demanding tasks.
In the Shadow of the Moon
This spiritual journey successfully recaptures the feeling of what made the Apollo missions so special. For one brief moment, it unified a species on a tiny blue dot floating in the infinite void. We learn from the men themselves, the only few who have ever walked on another world, how it felt to see our home, so big and indestructible from up close, so fragile from a distance. Consisting of interviews, never before seen footage and a much needed unified perspective, this is probably the best documentary anyone with an interest in space and our collective evolution should watch. It is simply an astonishing documentary you can’t stop thinking about. Was this our first step into becoming a multi-planetary species? Or was it one last futile attempt of an old and failing evolutionary experiment called intelligent life? Literally out of this world.
What is truth? What is illusion? Can we ever separate the two, as we have neurotically attempted to do in two millennia of philosophical discourse? And if we aren’t able to distinguish between the two, then how are we to navigate the treacherous world of guru’s, and by extension, any person who claims some truth, who we want to believe, who are put on a pedestal? While this documentary tries to glance over its dubious ethics, especially when it spirals out of a social experiment towards real consequences, it shows humankind’s deep longing for genuine spirituality, genuine connection and answers, as well as their bottomless capacity for gullibility. If you watch this documentary with a truly open mind and some compassion sprinkled on top there will be some surprising insights for you waiting.
The Grammar of Happiness
If you followed my advice at the very beginning of this article and watched the documentary ‘Being in the World’ first, you are most likely ready to catch a glimpse of what exactly makes Amazonian Pirahã tribe so extraordinary. Long thought to have a language unrelated to any other, the Pirahã have no words for colors, for quantity nor numeracy, or any to refer to the past or future. The discussion is still alive whether they lack ‘recursion’, the possibility of adding more and more words to a sentence, making it a never ending story within a story, like this, and this, regarded by Noam Chomsky as universally human. However, it is clear that due their unique symbolic world they inhabit, they live entirely in the present. The Grammar of Happiness is a one-of-its-kind documentary about a man set out to save these indigenous souls only to find himself as the only convert. Mind-blowing and controversial, make sure to do some fieldwork yourself after finishing it.
The Look of Silence
The Look of Silence is a stunning and heartbreaking film that is simply impossible to ignore. Not many people know that the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military in 1965 during which more than a million people were murdered. And that today the traumatized survivors are still haunted by a deep-rooted fear to remain silenced. In this complex story, in which the good versus evil narrative is difficult to draw clearly, the victims confront the inflictors and finally bring that what is unsaid out of the murky waters of taboo. The government has tried to stop this documentary and its predecessor ‘The Act of Killing‘ from spreading, since it addresses gangster capitalism, corruption and the widespread censorship in Indonesia. Fundamentally the Look of Silence is about the all too human dilemma between pragmatism and conscience, doing what is easy versus doing what is right. This movie is a powerful step to correct the perpetrators self-perception, and make them look in the moral mirror of their actions for the first time.
Just twenty years after German corporations were doing the same thing in Auschwitz, ideological anti-communism becomes the excuse, for this grotesque murderous profiteering by an American corporation. — Joshua Oppenheimer, director of ‘The Act of Killing’ and ‘The Look of Silence’
Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
One of the most interesting cultural clashes of the 20th century was between the spiritualism of the east and the materialism of the west. In particular, between the disillusioned young adults of the West, and the Tibetan buddhist teachers of the East who fled their homeland when the Chinese invaded in 1950. In the midst of all this stood Chogyam Trungpa, a young and brilliant student who was ordered to lead a monastery in England, but married an english girl, took up multiple mistresses, travelled to the United States, and started drinking alcohol and taking LSD instead. However you resolve the dissonance between his teachings and his erratic behaviour, you can’t deny that he had a massive impact on his followers, always showing that impermanence is everywhere, that we can’t hold on to anything, there is no ground, no truth, no light that guides us. And this vulnerable insight, the hopelessness of our existence, that we are just here, vulnerable, mortal and troubled, is what makes us paradoxically free. If you’d like to learn more about buddhism and get a taste of Trungpa’s Crazy Wisdom teachings, look no further.
What if you want to adapt the most epic science fiction novel of all time for screen? Would you pick a man who has a vision so outrageous the film will probably be doomed from the start? Starring Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Salvador Dali, and H.R. Giger, the movie Dune by the joyfully manic artist Jodorowsky can rightly be called ‘the greatest movie never made’. While many arguments can be made why this is actually a good thing (just ask yourself if you could handle a twenty hours long space version of ‘the Holy Mountain’), when you look at the influence his geniusly eccentric visions had on cinema, you can only wish that it was made nonetheless. Brilliant, funny, and maddening mesmerizing, this movie endearingly captures why a great failure is still a success.
An Honest Liar – Truth and Deception in the Life of James “The Amazing” Randi
At the heart of this deceptively emotional documentary lingers the fundamentally ethical question, ‘Is it ever alright to deceive other people?’ And if it is okay in some cases, then where do we draw the line? We follow the gifted magician and escape artist James Randi, who is most widely known for setting up the James Randi One Million Dollar Challenge, in his crusade to unmask and expose charlatans who claim to have supernatural powers. At one point in this wonderful documentary you will get hit by an introspective realization: namely, it’s only easy to fool so many people if they want to be fooled. And one would be hard-pressed not to invoke Nietzsche here to note that life doesn’t care about truth, it can as easily value untruth, something that becomes painstakingly clear in the unsuspected twist in the life of James “The Amazing” Randi.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
If you think mastery can be achieved with short-cuts, talents, or luck, and would like to cherish that belief, then you would do well to avoid this simple and profound documentary. In Tokyo lives a sushi master who has tried to improve on his sushi every single day, for over sixty years. No days off, no waning of motivation, just pure dedication in his quest for the ultimate sushi perfection. His little place sits in a subway station with just ten seats, yet has gotten a 3 star Michelin review and is sold out a year in advance. He oversees every step, from buying the fish to the preparation of the rice, which in itself, takes ten years to master. This is a meditation on repetition, dedication, and the long training needed to ensure a craft doesn’t die out with its master. Watch the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi if you want to know what it takes to become the very best.
This is a hard-to-acquire documentary that will most certainly leave a lasting impression. Not just because we see members of our own species living a life so utterly alien compared to our own existence, but because we recognize the familiar in that which is so Other. Filmed in 1961 in the Highlands of New Guinea, we meet the Dani people just before they got introduced to the modern world, still living in an almost fairytale-like closed-off world. Besides their work to farm sweet potatoes, harvest salt, and carve out arrows, most fascinating is their ritual warfare, something which could be considered just a game if it weren’t for the casualties. Hundreds of men meet around the same area, if the weather permits, to shoot arrows at one another. Not at the same time — which would be more effective if only there were a concept of effectiveness or an end-game — but just individually, one by one. It could be viewed that it’s war in its most early development phase, a type of proto-war, which reflects profoundly on our own humble beginnings. Watch this poetically narrated documentary if you want to experience what life is like in a Neolithic society.