Truth is often stranger than fiction, but most people didn’t seem to care about that much before Netflix came along. Overall, it seemed like the masses preferred watching action-packed blockbusters over documentaries that were often perceived to be “boring” or just “educational.”
However, much has changed now that streaming services provide wider access to more documentaries than ever before. Films that were once relegated to the fringes of arthouse cinema are now being talked about with the same fervor as the latest movies to hit the multiplex and their impact goes beyond mere entertainment.
All documentaries strive to teach us about worlds we never knew existed and the very best of them are even capable of changing our lives for the better. With so many options to wade through, we here at Highsnobiety have carefully selected 11 Netflix documentaries that can help transform your outlook on the world in ways you might have never thought possible. From gun control to environmental concerns, the following films tackle themes that hold the power to inspire real change.
1. Chasing Coral (2017)
What’s it about?: Coral reefs play a vital role in oceanic ecosystems around the world, and yet huge swathes of coral are dying out thanks to the harmful impact of increasing carbon emissions. Chasing Coral follows a concerned team of experts who set out to record the “coral bleaching” phenomenon up close and raise awareness about these catastrophic developments.
Why it could change lives: Chasing Coral is a call to activism that encourages viewers to re-evaluate humanity’s impact on the environment. While it’s easy to feel powerless in the face of climate change, it’s vital that individuals do everything they can to help on a micro level while also supporting politicians who are fighting to change things for the better. Watch here.
2. Audrie & Daisy (2016)
What’s it about?: The two subjects of this documentary were both sexually assaulted at high school parties and then subjected to a horrific tirade of online bullying in the weeks and months that followed. Through their stories, the filmmakers explore the trauma such crimes inflict while also investigating how the institutions that were supposed to protect them failed to do so.
Why it could change lives: At a time when victim-blaming is still rife, Audrie & Daisy is a difficult and yet vital watch that could help educate many on the social ramifications of sexual assault while also helping to stop these kind of crimes before they happen. The “boys will be boys” culture that helps enable such acts needs to be condemned openly in the spotlight. Watch here.
3. LA 92 (2017)
What’s it about?: LA 92 revists the 1992 Rodney King trial through a new set of lenses. 25 years later, viewers are brought back to the period through unseen archival footage of the trial itself and the resulting outcome that led to civil unrest.
Why it could change lives: The past continues to inform the present as violence between communities and the police brought political issues, such as racial tensions along with other deeper issues and consequences, to the national spotlight. Watch here.
4. Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014)
What’s it about?: Directed by Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn, Cowspiracy hones in on the impact of agriculture on the environment, arguing that the world’s largest environmental organizations are failing to protect the planet.
Why it could change lives: Although some of the more extreme claims made in this film have since been disputed by the scientific community, Cowspiracy is still an extremely powerful documentary that forces you to reevaluate your relationship with food. Not only is it important to question what you put in your body, it’s also vital that we recognize how certain farming practices can damage the planet too. Watch here.
5. Joshua: Teenager Vs. Superpower (2017)
What’s it about?: When the Chinese Communist Party reneged on their promises of autonomy for Hong Kong in 2014, a teenager called Joshua Wong roused over 100,000 people to hit the streets in protest.
Why it could change lives: At a time when society continues to take some darker turns, it’s inspiring to see that everyday teenagers can make a real difference, particularly in societies that value conformity over the individual. Not only can peaceful protests be effective, but they also remind us how important it is to stand up for what we believe is right. Watch here.
6. Icarus (2017)
What’s it about?: This Oscar-winning film follows an American cyclist who ends up finding himself in the center of a doping scandal involving a Russian scientist and whistleblower.
Why it could change lives: Icarus documents an instance where a person in power puts up a public facade that crumbles once investigations take place behind the scenes. It warns of the dangers in getting too immersed with your work, just as director Bryan Fogel does when he grows closer with his subject who is faced with controversial allegations. Watch here.
7. Newtown (2016)
What’s it about?: Newtown explores the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting through interviews with various family members. With devastating intimacy, the film examines how each person was affected while also widening the scope to the community at large.
Why it could change lives: More than just a mere reminder of how gun violence can destroy a community, Newtown forces the audience to confront their own beliefs regarding gun control by emphasizing the lasting pain that such attacks can provoke. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Newtown should be compulsory viewing for all American citizens. Watch here.
8. Forks Over Knives (2011)
What’s it about?: Filmmaker Lee Fulkerson explores the benefits of a plant-based diet in this informative documentary, arguing that conditions like heart disease can be reversed simply by changing the kind of food that we put on our plates.
Why it could change lives: The acclaimed critic Roger Ebert wrote that Forks Over Knives “is a film that could save your life.” Whether you agree with this assumption or not, Fulkerson’s documentary will make you think twice before you buy a trolley’s worth of processed foods in your next trip to the supermarket. Watch here.
9. Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things (2016)
What’s it about?: Known as The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus meet like-minded people across America during their book tour, laying out the impact that their new lifestyles have had on their personal happiness and wellbeing.
Why it could change lives: While you might not want to take things to the same extremes seen in this documentary, Minimalism will undoubtedly make you reconsider your approach to consumerism. Why keep buying things you don’t need when you can use that space to fill your life with the experiences and people you love instead? Watch here.
10. Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (2019)
What’s it about?: Thousands of guests were lured to the worst music festival of all time after bikini-clad supermodels posted about Fyre on social media. Chris Smith’s documentary takes us behind the scenes and follows creators Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule as their party starts to unravel.
Why it could change lives: In an era of shallow excess, don’t believe everything you read on social media. It’s as simple as that. Watch here.
11. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (2020)
What’s it about?: The newly-released docu-series is all about Joe Exotic, a man who owned a zoo in rural Oklahoma. Exotic, real name Joseph Maldonado-Passage, is currently serving a 22-year sentence in federal prison, after commissioning the murder of his arch-nemesis, animal activist Carole Baskin. The controversial zoo owner was a polygamist who ran for President and Governor of Oklahoma and sang in home-made country music videos.
Why it could change lives: Once you get past Joe Exotic’s questionable character, you’ll see that Tiger King is about much more than its protagonist. The documentary digs deep into the private possession of exotic animals in the United States, and animal rights as a whole. Watch it here.
Emma Li also contributed to this story.