Documentaries have the power to change perceptions about the world around us on both a personal and societal level, and as we’ve seen time and time again, the source of this can come from anywhere; a student at documentary filmmaking school is just as likely to inspire big change as a well-known celebrity A-Lister.
One area in which documentary filmmaking is making great strides is ecology and the environment. With single titles having a notable impact on how we as a species affect our planet, let’s take a look at six of the best environmental documentaries you should check out right now (from both the obscure to the award-winning).
Food, Inc. (2008)
Usually high up the list of many people’s “best environmental documentaries,” Food, Inc. went after one of the biggest subjects in ecology with a brazenness the likes of which isn’t often seen in modern documentary filmmaking. It found its mark.
Divided into three acts, the documentary covers the production of meat and vegetables in the first two before turning its attention to the conglomerate nature of food sales. Eye opening and horrifying in equal measure, it wholly deserved the Emmy which it went on to win.
Dirt! The Movie (2009)
Based on the book Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth and narrated by none other than Jamie Lee Curtis, this is a documentary that doesn’t look appealing at first glance but is actually essential viewing given the ubiquity of the subject matter. It’s also free to watch on YouTube, so dive into this unexpected (and award-winning) treat by clicking here.
General Orders No. 9 (2012)
One of the lesser known yet no less stunning environmental documentaries on this list, General Orders No. 9 is an absolute beauty to behold.
Eschewing all of the standard documentary conventions and running like a visual meditation, this unique film sequence chronicles the American South’s demise as the wilderness is slowly paved over. Having taken 11 years to make, cinematography doesn’t get much more elegant than this.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
No list of the best environmental documentaries would be complete without a hat tip to Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth. No real introduction is needed for the title which arguably did more for raising global consciousness than any prior film to the effects of global warming, so if you haven’t already, go watch it immediately.
As we mentioned in our “How to Shoot a Documentary” post, Gasland has the distinction of being one of the few feature-length, widely distributed documentaries to have been produced by just one man. That man is Josh Fox, and Gasland doesn’t suffer any for the lack of crew members.
Fox’s story comes out of the gate swinging, beginning in medias res with a natural gas company offering him $100,000 to lease the land he lives on for drilling purposes. Intrigued, the director goes on to speak to families who have accepted the offer and uncovers numerous serious health issues in the process—essentially, it’s a modern-day Erin Brockovich in documentary form.
One of the most recognizable entries on the list of best environmental documentaries, in part due to the immense furor it caused upon its release in 2013 and the subsequent fallout.
If you want an example of a documentary that tangentially changed the world, this is it. The tale of one orca’s life in captivity and the narrative surrounding it totally savaged SeaWorld’s reputation, so much so that the company’s shares and attendance figures plummeted in the documentary’s wake:
For its part, however, SeaWorld has claimed that the documentary hasn’t had a negative effect and that the drop in share prices is down to other factors (and the drop in attendance is the result of unseasonably bad weather at its main parks). We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
Got your own recommendations of the best environmental documentaries we should be watching? Don’t hesitate to hit the comments below and share with the group.