documentaries to watch

When August comes around it inevitably results in hot afternoons, the crackling smell of greasy barbecue grates, and the glint of green grass in the sunlight. At the end of the day, we don’t often find ourselves craving nights snuggled up on the couch, watching movies. The slightest thought of a blanket covering any part of our sticky bodies causes discomforting shudders down the spine.

While this all may ring true, we’ve discovered that somehow documentaries are different. Their informative and enlightening nature allows them to be just the kind of entertainment that we crave on these warm summer nights. No complex storyline to decipher; no fabricated drama to navigate through; and, so it seems, no blankets necessary. All that is needed is a cool desire to learn a little something that you didn’t know the day before. Sit down, grab a cold drink, and gather ‘round for some fresh knowledge.

We’ve got 11 of our favorite documentaries here to share with you, and we’re hoping that you’ll share yours with us in the comments section, too!

1. Chef’s Table

The same man (David Gelb) who created Jiro Dreams of Sushi thought up this docu-series, so it’s no surprise that it is a visual masterpiece. Feast your eyes here if you are remotely intrigued by foreign flavors, faraway lands, or the grand risks that the world’s highest ranked chefs take in order to pursue their passion for creating and feeding people. Although you may be tempted to start this series from its beginning, we recommend starting with episode three of the first season. It’s the biographical piece on Francis Mallmann, in which Patagonia’s scenery is stunningly crisp and the chef’s tactics so wonderfully complement it.

2. Janis: Little Girl Blue

This recent release is a work by Oscar-nominated director, Amy Berg. It lets us into the deeper caverns of Janis Joplin’s life story, which is an innovative feat. Joplin’s creative life is laid bare here, as Berg ventured to tell her story in a way that honored the artist’s own, genuine perspective. Berg stated, “The only way to tell Janis’ story was through Janis’ voice. Her letters show the vulnerable artist, daughter, and lover Janis was in her short but impactful life.” While Joplin’s tumultuous story is a heavier choice, we find this lead female rock ‘n’ roller’s story to be a necessary window into the history of American women’s relationship with music.

3. Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory

While we’re on the topic of music, we found this documentary to be particularly unique. If you are looking for an uplifting, mentally-stimulating watch, this would be it. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett reveals the healing quality of music, its ability to overcome human medical travesties where medication is not enough. Social worker Dan Cohen is shown utilizing the great power of music to combat Alzheimer’s and redeem people from years of solitude and hopelessness. Those who are featured in this film are truly seen brought to life by the freedom of song.

… we’ve discovered that somehow documentaries are different. Their informative and enlightening nature allows them to be just the kind of entertainment that we crave on these warm summer nights.

4. Private Violence

This piece, directed by Cynthia Hill, is a flame held up to the frustratingly common exploitation of women. In the film two survivors of domestic violence, Deanna Walters and Kit Gruelle, bravely share their experiences with partner abuse. Their stories debunk modern assumptions and unveil the reality of an ugly, invisible world that lurks within the homes of too many. On this visual platform, women claim their voice; they are heard and they are finally honored in their truth. Both women guide us into a future without domestic violence.

5. Happy

We’d call this one of those “oldies but goodies.” Released in 2011, it might not be so old, but it already feels like a classic. Director Roko Belic takes his audience on an adventure to answer the infamous question: What really makes people happy? He broadcasts people’s experiences with happiness, pointing us in a direction to achieving greater happiness throughout our days. Watching this is akin to listening to a chorus of wise elders whispering into our ears, “These are the things you must practice before you die, young ones!”

6. Somm: Into the Bottle

If you consider yourself a wine connoisseur in any capacity, this documentary was pressed for your palette. The engaging sequel to Somm, this piece is segmented into 10 chapters and conveys the multi-faceted process of winemaking, without forsaking the ultimate enjoyment of drinking it. Wine, beer, and spirits writer Esther Mobley shared in her review of the film, “As a wine lover, I’m most interested in this question when it comes to books, films, TV shows about wine: Does it convey the pleasure of drinking wine? That’s the ultimate litmus — and the reason that any sommelier (even those that love taking hard tests) does what she does. On this count, Somm: Into the Bottle succeeds. It leaves you thirsty.”

darling documentaries

7. Virunga

Deep in the Congo is Virunga National Park, where the last mountain gorillas live. Orlando von Einsiedel and Leonardo DiCaprio have teamed up to share the bold work of a small band of park rangers, including an ex-child soldier, an orphaned gorillas’ caretaker, and a conservationist who preserve and safeguard this UNESCO world heritage site from its adversaries. While militia and poachers threaten to undertake this area, its protectors remain emboldened with their convictions and, further into the documentary, even the filmmakers get involved in the tumult that surrounds this corner of the world. This one truly is a grand story, complete with risk, courage, and relevant purpose.

8. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

If you have ever been curious about the grey controversy that lies beneath Scientology, please sit down to this film. Alex Gibney presents eye-opening angles by shining a light on former members of the Church of Scientology, revealing a highly discomforting abundance of injustices that skulk beneath its facade. This pick surely does provide a refreshing clarity and leaves us with a renewed sense of moral conviction to stand by those values which ring true to our very bones, rather than submitting to the faulty authority of those who might be hungry for power.

9. Twinsters

This one is a miraculous product of modern technology and, in an interesting way, it speaks to a deep sense of wonder that all humans can relate to. (Remember being a kid and questioning whether there was another person “out there” with your same interests, your same thoughts, your same face?) Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto record the incredible inter-national discovery and reunion of two separated twins, one of which being Futerman herself. Futerman and Anaïs Bordier, adopted from South Korea and raised on different continents, find one another through social media and spectacularly reconnect.

10. (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies

This last documentary appeals to one of our most commonplace curiosities. It reaches out to help us understand why lying is so prolific when we have all been taught its inherent immoral value. Intriguingly, it accomplishes a kind of human unification, humbling us with the reminder we are not as perfect as we might have previously believed; we are instead united in our flawed nature.

11. Unbroken Ground*

There’s a saying that the earth is not inherited from our ancestors but borrowed from our children. As much as we may have the best intentions to learn more about where our food comes from or what’s in season, our consumer culture disconnects us from the land, and can leave us asking too small of questions. In Unbroken Ground, Director Chris Malloy introduces agricultural pioneers challenging the environmental crisis by implementing biodiversity and regenerative methods for farming and fishing. Here you’ll meet families and towns who have made their livelihoods and local economies part of a new revolution. *Written by Melanie Loon

Which documentaries would you consider must-sees? Why?

Images via Becca Tapert


  1. I just finished watching Alive Inside and I am so moved and inspired to start my own fundraiser to get iPods with their favorite songs in the lives of the elderly. My great grandma and grandma were both in nursing homes. Both of them passed by 2006, but I hope to put back music in other senior citizens lives and see a smile or two. Thank you so much for this recommendation. Truly eye opening and life changing for me.

    1. Hi Kaitlin, that is so amazing! I could not be more glad. I hope that you keep pursuing your passion to pass along the joy of music!

  2. Chef’s Table, Private Violence and Twinsters sound so good! A few documentary favourites: The September Issue, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Fifth Position.?

    1. I love to keep coming back to the September Issue; it’s become a favorite of mine. I’m looking forward to checking out the second two! Thank you so much, Donna!

  3. I recently finished episode 3 of Chef’s Table, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on screen in years! I can’t wait to keep watching more!

    1. That is so fantastic to hear! That episode inspired me greatly, too, and it makes me so happy to know that you enjoyed its beauty as well.

  4. 1) “Girl Rising” is a few years old but absolutely a must see for every one.
    66 billion girls uneducated worldwide. Helping just 1% of them would transform third world countries.

    2) “The Masks We Wear” is a life changing documentary which challenges the socital molds of masculinity. I watched it and cried. Then I sat down with my preteens and we watched it together, discussing key points after. So much of my own childhood finally made sense in light of this.

    3) As an animal lover and rescue advocate I loved “Champions.” With every prejudice, ignorance fuels unnecessary fear. The truth comes into perfect clarity as you journey with the dogs who survived Michael Vick’s illegal fighting ring. Beautiful and heart warming.

    1. I love how all three of these are so relevant and eye-opening. I’m especially interested in that second one, “The Masks We Wear;” I can’t wait to watch it! Thank you so much for sharing, Natalie!

  5. I definitely would recommend Life in a Day. It came out a few years ago, but it is truely an amazing documentary and opens your eyes and heart. Truly a price of art.

    1. I remember seeing this one advertised and being in awe of just how beautiful the footage and focus was! I need to get this on my list and finally watch it. Thank you so much, Dakota!

  6. I enjoyed the documentary series Half the Sky. It highlights people that are boldly doing good around the world.

  7. One documentary that struck me was The True Cost. It highlights the fast fashion and its impact to the cheap labourers as well as the economy and environment. The documentary can be watched on Netflix.

    1. That one was definitely a contender for this list! I’m so grateful that it’s out there for us to watch. Thank you so much for sharing, B!

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