10 Documentaries That Will Make You a Better Person


Films For Action describes themselves as “a community-powered alternative news center and learning library for people who want to change the world.” Their recent list of 100 documentaries that inspire a shift to a sustainable paradigm caught our attention. “We need to be able to imagine new, exciting ways that people could live, better than anything that the old paradigm could ever dream of providing,” the website declares. “This knowledge is vitally necessary.” We couldn’t agree more, which is why we chose to focus on ten films from the list that make powerful, life-changing statements about social, environmental, and economic issues. Although most of these movies paint troubling and unflattering portraits of our society, the positive messages of awareness and change are loud and clear. Be sure to check out the full list on Films for Action, and feel free to mention any you see missing in the comments section.

Food, Inc.

The message: You are what you eat.

Enjoy your bucket of buttery popcorn before watching Food, Inc. and losing your appetite entirely. Emmy-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner doesn’t hold back in his 2008 documentary about the agribusiness and its devastating economic and environmental effects. Food contamination, the mistreatment of workers and animals, and government-induced food monopolies are a few things explored. “All we want is transparency and a good conversation about these things,” Kenner said of the film. “We have nothing but the utmost respect for farmers, but the whole system is made possible by government subsidies to a few huge crops like corn. It’s a form of socialism that’s making us sick.” Food, Inc. makes it clear how our nutritional choices affect far more than our waistlines.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price

The message: Shop responsibly.

Even if you didn’t shop at WalMart a hell of a lot (or ever) before Robert Greenwald’s 2005 documentary about the retail giant, we feel confident saying that those who did quit cold turkey after seeing the effects WalMart has on communities far and wide. The company’s superstores are the cockroaches of the retail world, spreading through neighborhoods like a disease. The doc takes a look at how WalMart exploits workers at home and internationally — thanks to its anti-union practices and sweatshop affiliations — and at its extermination of family businesses. Those low prices don’t come without suffering.

Capitalism: A Love Story and Sicko

The message: Speak out.

Documentarian Michael Moore has been accused of oversimplifying matters, creating over-the-top, manipulative works. For all their faults, the films are often persuasive, accessible, and humorous, leaving viewers to debate and discuss relevant topics — like the price of capitalism and the horrors of the American health care industry. Despite Moore’s divisive reputation, both award-winning films offer an entry point into the labyrinthine world of the pharmaceutical industry, insurance politics, the wage war, and more. It’s a crisis we’re all living, but Moore’s firsthand approach is still eye-opening.


The message: Educate yourself.

Now that Hurricane Sandy has taught us that the apocalypse won’t be filled with zombies, but perverts on Craigslist trying to barter sex for gasoline, Josh Fox’s Gasland seems as critically important a watch as ever. After Fox received a letter from a natural gas company asking to drill on his family’s Pennsylvania property, the filmmaker set out to explore how communities are being affected by the hydraulic drilling process known as “fracking.” The thread about the Fox family home runs throughout, but Gasland takes aim at the bigger picture: health and safety, greed, and disturbing corporate and government agendas.

The Yes Men Fix the World

The message: Don’t believe everything you read, see, and hear.

Activist duo and performance pranksters Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos formed their alter egos the Yes Men to uncover the truth behind various social injustices. Impersonating the people they work to expose, Servin and Vamos brought their satirical stunts to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and the National Petroleum Council, the mass media, and more. The scathingly funny film reveals terrifying levels of foolishness, gullibility, and a complete absence of logic. As the Yes Men put it, “We have created a market system that makes doing the right thing impossible, and the people who appear to be leading are actually following its pathological dictates. If we keep putting the market in the driver’s seat, it could happily drive the whole planet off a cliff.”

The Canary Effect

The message: Policies don’t always protect.

Screened in competition at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, Robin Davey and Yellow Thunder Woman (from LA musical group The Bastard Fairies) take a look at how the United States has treated its indigenous population over the past several hundred years. The appearance of controversial author Ward Churchill may repel some audiences, but the directors provide several sound arguments and evidence for their stance surrounding the government marginalization and neglect of Native culture. On a related note, check out our recent interview with a Native American expert about cultural appropriation.

War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death

The message: Know your media.

Sean Penn narrates War Made Easy from directors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp, based on Norman Solomon’s book of the same name. “This guide to disinformation analyzes American military adventures past and present to reveal striking similarities in the efforts of various administrations to justify, and retain, public support for war,” the book’s synopsis reads — and the film follows suit. War Made Easy reveals political manipulation in the media, at the expense of your patriotism.

RiP: A Remix Manifesto

The message: “Culture always builds on the past, the past always tries to control the future, our future is becoming less free, and to build free societies, you must limit the control of the past.”

In the wake of SOPA and PIPA madness, Brett Gaylor’s 2008 documentary RiP! is an extremely pertinent part of the conversation about copyright issues in the Internet age and their effect on art. The film sports appearances from Gregg Gillis of Girl Talk, Boing Boing editor Cory Doctorow, and pioneering musician Gilberto Gil. It was labeled the first “open source documentary,” culled from the contributions to Gaylor’s Open Source Cinema website. Later, Gaylor invited people to remix the documentary and upload new versions of the film to continue the discussion.

Inside Job

The message: Don’t let a difficult subject leave you in the dark.

We listed the 2010 Academy Award-winning documentary by Charles Ferguson in our roundup of fascinating documentaries about the one percent. We think it’s essential viewing during the ongoing global financial crisis.

The Age of Stupid

The message: Act now.

Franny Armstrong’s 2009 British docudrama stars the great Pete Postlethwaite as a lone man from the year 2055 who tries to figure out where mankind went wrong with climate change. It takes a considerably more human approach to the subject of environmental depletion through multiple stories (interspersed with animation) that show the personal efforts and effects of action and inaction. “A thread of needling gallows humor runs through The Age of Stupid,” The New York Times has pointed out. “Near the end of the film the Archivist wonders: ‘Why didn’t we save ourselves? Was the answer that we weren’t sure we were worth saving?’ He may have a point.”