documentary films

5 Social Justice Documentaries to Watch on Netflix

Whether you call it the Civil Rights Movement of the millennial generation or however you prefer to phrase it, there’s no denying that the world is politically tumultuous at present, and folks are speaking out loud and proud about those social justice issues that matter to them most. And while we’re all busy learning, protesting, challenging the status quo, or creating meaningful art, there’s nothing like a good documentary to keep us inspired, informed, and engaged, while on the path to making radical changes to improving our world as we know it.

Whether you are advocating for racial justice and reconciliation, gender equality, animal rights, or equal rights for those of the LGBTQ and transgender community, here are five social justice documentaries available to stream online right now, courtesy of Netflix.

1. “13th” Ava DuVernay, Dir.

An in-depth examination of the judicial system in the U.S. and how it reveals our nation’s racial bias at the intersection of justice and mass incarceration, Ava DuVernay’s Academy Award-winning documentary posits that slavery in the U.S was never fully abolished. Her thesis is that slavery only evolved into our nation’s current prison industrial complex that criminalizes certain behaviors, unfairly targeting African-Americans. Named after the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves and prohibited slavery, “13th” demands that viewers recognize the existence of modern-day American slavery by another name.

2. “Miss Representation” Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Dir.

Premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Jennifer Siebel Newsom draws on the experiences of everyday women and celebrities like Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, and Ellen DeGeneres, who concede that women cannot aspire to become what they know nothing of. In short, the film questions why there aren’t enough strong women role models in mainstream media, and implores those who view it to take a pledge against gender misrepresentation: #DisruptTheNarrative!

3. “Prescription Thugs” Chris Bell, Dir.

In this sobering look at America’s legal drug abuse problem, director Chris Bell turns his camera to the abuse of prescription drugs and big pharma, and eventually to his own harrowing addiction. This film explores the goals of pharmaceutical companies, the doctors involved in this epidemic, and the nature of addiction. This thought-provoking expose is one to watch to better understand how ordinary people deal with pain, and their response to addiction in an economy that profits off of them.

4. “Second Chance Dogs” Kenn Bell, Dir.

*Trigger warning for animal lovers.

In this emotionally charged documentary, we follow several dogs who’ve experienced various situations of abuse through puppy mills and hoarding, and despite it all, have been rescued and rehabilitated. Originally aired on Animal Planet, the film follows a facility dedicated to their recovery through patience and innovative techniques at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center.

5. “A Sinner in Mecca” Parvez Sharma, Dir.

On his own pilgrimage to Mecca, openly gay Muslim director Sharma documents his own personal journey, fulfilling a lifelong dream. In the film, he strives to make a place for himself in the Wahabi Islam he’s always known, and the extremism Islam he’s come to know but that has no resemblance to his religious and spiritual beliefs.

What are your favorite social justice documentaries to stream right now? Let us know in the comments below, and check out NYFA’s documentary programs.

How to Prepare and Conduct a Documentary Interview

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You’ve got the story of the century and some great subjects willing to bare all on camera. It’s a one-time opportunity to make some great documentary footage, so here’s how to make sure the interview goes swimmingly.

Getting Set Up

As with any shoot — not just documentary interviewing — the key to perfect footage lies in the setup. A few things to consider:

Background: You’ll want think carefully about where you place your subject, both from an aesthetic and exposure point of view. It’s worth reading up on our guide to filming in natural light for an in-depth look at how your choice background can make or break a shot.

Multiple Cameras: Having two different camera angles (or perhaps one recording wide while another does close up) will give you additional options in the editing suite, as discussed in more detail further down. It’s standard practice to have the subject looking at you and at a slight angle to the camera rather than directly into it.

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Ambient Noise Level: Do a mental check of any background noise that might pose problems later on. It’s easy to overlook constant, low noises (like air conditioners) on the day, but they’ll stick out like a sore thumb when you listen back!

If time allows, try to factor in some time with the subject before the interview, especially if you don’t know them — it’s good to build rapport before you start firing questions at them, and it’ll help soothe everyone’s nerves … it can be quite an overwhelming experience for those who aren’t used to being interviewed! Finding small ways to make the process as comfortable as possible for your subject is always beneficial.

And of course, the main piece of preparation you need to focus on is the questions themselves…

Interview Preparation and Conducting

A few well-worded questions are all it takes to transform an interview from “good” to “great.”

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Naturally, what these questions will entail depends entirely on your subject and nature of the discussion, but some good rules of thumb on both the writing and asking of your questions include:

  • Avoid yes/no questions. Rather than, “Did you feel under pressure during the incident,” a more open-ended approach such as, “There must have been a lot of pressure on you during the incident,” will yield more usable results.
  • Have the interviewee repeat the question as part of his or her answer. You’ll find it much easier to edit afterwards since the context is built into what they’re saying.
  • Avoid interrupting. You can always make a cut when the answer goes on too long, but it’s much harder to edit around an interviewer’s interjections.
  • In fact, avoid making any sound whatsoever. Outside of actually asking the question, don’t make the mistake of adding non-verbal noises (such as “hmmm” or gasping) while listening to your subject.
  • Have a solid idea of where you’re trying to lead the interview. Think of your time with the subject as one part of the whole documentary; you’ll have a clear idea of the overall narrative, so use pointed, structured questions that’ll lead you neatly onto the next part of the film.

Knowing when to let things veer away from the prepared questions and when to bring things back is a skill that can only be learned with time and practice, but trusting your instinct will get you most of the way.

 

Get as Much B-Roll Footage as Possible

You may be absolutely riveted by your subject while conducting the interview, and with a bit of luck they’ll give you more useful material than you could ever hope to use in the final cut.

However, a static shot of someone talking isn’t always that appealing for long periods of time from the audience’s perspective. You’ll probably want to overlay contextual B-roll footage to illustrate what your subject is saying, give the viewer a visual break, and add a little flavor.

It’ll make your life a lot easier to get as much B-roll footage as possible ahead of time rather than heading back out during the editing phase, particularly if you want the subject to be in the footage themselves.

However, there will be moments where the interview gets really good and you don’t want to switch to B-roll, particularly in emotionally powerful moments. For that, you’ll want to use a slider.

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Creating Subtle Movement

If you want to zoom in on a subject (or pan across the room) during a documentary interview, you’ve got two options: manually zoom or move the camera, or make the adjustment during post.

The latter isn’t ideal from a quality point of view, and the former is tricky to do effectively on the fly (especially when you’re trying to conduct the interview at the same time).

The solution? Use a slider.

It’s a low-cost, highly effective solution that will add a level of dynamism to your interview footage.

Never Stop Filming!

It’s not uncommon (in fact, it’s usual) for the real gold to happen outside of the interview. Keeping the cameras rolling both during the setup and long after you’ve finished asking questions may prove to be the best documentary tip you ever implement.

Hopefully you’ll have way more footage than you’ll ever need, so now the fun begins: click here to read up on how to edit your interview footage for maximum impact.

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!