Change the World: 5 Documentaries That Made a Difference (for Better or Worse)

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To change the world is a big goal, and yet documentary film can sometimes bring this goal within reach. One of the greatest strengths of the medium of documentary filmmaking is its ability to capture the cultural zeitgeist, as well as to bring an issue or a slice of society to a wider audience’s awareness.

The documentary format is generally meant to reflect impartially on its subject, but quite often the filmmaker influences events during the course of shooting … and on some occasions, the documentary itself ends up changing the world in a very tangible way. Here are five documentary films (plus some honorable mentions) that did exactly that.

*Warning: may contain spoilers.

1. “The Thin Blue Line” (1988)  

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Heralded by many as one of the greatest documentaries ever committed to celluloid, “The Thin Blue Line” followed the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Filmed by ex-private detective Errol Morris, the documentary showed categorically that the case was corrupt through and through.

Did it change the world?

The documentary stirred massive awareness in the public regarding the case, which caused intense scrutiny on the ruling and led to the case being reopened. A year after the documentary screened, Adams was exonerated and released. This film may have had the largest impact on the life of just one man and his family, but its greater message is clear: even in the face of the entire judicial system, one man and a camera can make a difference.

Honorable Mention: The trilogy “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” shot in 1996, 2000, and 2011, which strongly influence the real-life case of The West Memphis Three.

2. “An Inconvenient Truth” (2006)

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This is the famous Academy Award-winning documentary charting former VP Al Gore’s campaign to raise awareness about global warming to citizens across the country. Producer Laurie David took on the project after being bowled over during one of Gore’s lectures, realizing that it could go on to inspire a wider audience.

Did it change the world?

David’s prediction was a success, given that his documentary inspired an outcry of conversation about global warming not just in the U.S. but around the world. According to an Oxford University study, three out of four people who had seen the film reported to have changed their consumer habits as a result.

3. “Blackfish” (2013)

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Seaworld has long been famous for its use of orcas in public entertainment, but what are the repercussions of keeping orcas in captivity? That’s the central question behind the 2013 documentary that got everyone talking — and got the Seaworld marketing staff a little hot under the collar.

Did it change the world?

In addition to countering many myths about orcas long held by the public (many of which were encouraged by SeaWorld itself), the documentary hit its mark; Seaworld profits, share values and attendance numbers tanked following the release of “Blackfish” — and SeaWorld is still struggling to revitalize its public image. While the top brass claimed this has all had nothing to do with “Blackfish,” they subsequently announced in March this year that they were ending all orca performances, and just this week it was reported that SeaWorld has official phased out its orca breeding program.

Honorable Mention: “The Cove,” which received an Academy Award for best documentary in 2010 and prompted a huge drop in Japanese dolphin fishing.

4. “Super Size Me” (2004)

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In which Morgan Spurlock famously ate at McDonald’s every day for a month, ingesting three meals per day at the chain (and nothing else). When asked if he wanted that meal supersized?  He had to say “yes.”

Did it change the world?

While one critic pointed out we all already knew that fast food is bad for you and many others highlighting that nobody should consume 5,000 calories a day without exercising, the documentary showcased the dramatic effect of this diet in a way that truly captured the public imagination. This film prompted a wider public discussion about the role of fast food chains in society. After the film’s release, McDonald’s removed the “supersize” option from their menu six weeks after the film’s premiere (while claiming it wasn’t a response to the film). They also added salads to their menu.

Honorable mention: 2005’s “McLibel” documentary, a David-and-Goliath tale covering the much maligned lawsuit of the same name.

5. “Triumph of the Will” (1935)

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Not all documentaries are a force for positive change. Some are used as propaganda, which is a stark reminder of just how influential and important a documentary can be — and why it’s critical that documentary filmmakers learn and practice their craft carefully.

“Triumph of the Will” is an example of how documentary film can be manipulated for dubious ends. Starring none other than Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Viktor Lutze, and other Nazi leaders, this WWII documentary was arguably one of the most effective propaganda films ever made.

Did it change the world?

The response to the film was monumental, and immediately after its release gained the Nazi party countless numbers of additional supporters and sympathizers. Leni Riefenstahl, the director, went on to be heralded as one of the finest female filmmakers of the 20 century mainly owing to technical and stylistic innovations in “Triumph of the Will,” but she was also demonized for her associations right up until her death in 2003 (aged 101). Dubiously honorable mention: Riefenstahl’s follow up propaganda film, “Olympia,” which covered the Hitler-attended 1936 Olympic Games, and is also recognized for its technical innovation (if not the content).

For better or worse, the impact these documentaries have made remind us all of the immense power and responsibility of documentary filmmakers. Whatever stories you choose to tell, remember that your film might just change the world.

More documentaries to consider that did their part to change the world: “Making a Murderer,” “The Jinx,” “Titicut Follies” and “Gasland.”

Has your life been strongly impacted or changed by a documentary film? Do you plan on making a film to change the world? Let us know in the comments below!

Change the World: 5 Documentaries That Made a Difference (for Better or Worse) by

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