A good documentary is one of the best ways to tackle a new subject. Skilled filmmakers can bring even the most complex subjects to life so that viewers feel involved while being informed. At best, documentaries can serve as what the late great film critic Roger Ebert called an “empathy machine”. They provide insight into other lives and thus broaden our horizons.
Over the past decade, Netflix has become a formidable producer of documentaries. Their original works cover a range of topics, from sports and cooking to protests and war. Their selection is sure to include something for everyone.
“Medal of Honor” (2018) – IMDb: 8.2/10
This documentary series explores the lives of soldiers who received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the most prestigious military decoration in the United States. It features archival footage, interviews and dramatic re-enactments of events. The result is a gripping anthology about bravery and selflessness.
Medal of Honor examines several conflicts, from the Second World War to Afghanistan. It goes beyond wars to explore the social issues of the time and the personal struggles of soldiers. It’s essential viewing for military buffs or anyone interested in combat experiences.
“Summary: The Art of Design” (2017) – IMDb: 8.3/10
Summary: The art of design is a survey of creativity. Each episode focuses on a designer and delves into their creative process. The show runs the gamut from typography and architecture to bio-engineering and digital products. The series itself is also an example of good design. The interspersed animations and visuals are stunning and clever.
The only criticism that can be made of the series is that it is sometimes too uncritical of its subjects. Without exception, he portrays them in an altogether positive light. For the most part it’s fine, as Summary is meant to be an introduction to these designers, and it succeeds in doing so.
‘Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom’ (2015) – IMDb: 8.3/10
This documentary film follows the 2014 Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, where many citizens expressed their displeasure with the then president. Viktor Yanukovychto withdraw from an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union. Eventually the people succeeded, with Yanukovych relinquishing power and fleeing to Russia. These events were the precursor to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean region later that year.
winter on fire is a moving portrait of the protest movement, relying primarily on footage recorded by ordinary people. This is especially relevant now, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. This helps make sense of the current situation in the country and Russia’s aggression.
‘Hip-Hop Evolution’ (2016) – IMDb: 8.4/10
Kanye West once rapped: “Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?” Evolution of hip hop explains how hip-hop rose from the underground in the 1970s to become the most popular musical genre on the planet. It’s a big musical story, filled with interviews with rap legends like Rick Rubin, LL cool J, Ice-T, and much more.
The crew behind this series have a love for hip-hop that’s clear to see, but they’re also not afraid to critically engage with the material. They look at social and political issues and the dark side of the music industry, such as drugs and violence. Evolution of hip hop deserves praise for breaking hip-hop’s sprawling history into digestible chunks that shed more light on American culture.
“The Chef’s Table” (2015) – IMDb: 8.5/10
Chef’s table is similar to Summary in that they both explore the lives of creatives, but here the subjects are elite chefs. Each episode spotlights a chef and reveals the influences and inspirations behind their culinary delights. It’s sure to be a treat for foodies everywhere. The close-ups of the dishes alone will make viewers salivate: don’t watch them on an empty stomach.
But Chef’s table is more than just a cooking show. It’s an exploration of what drives these chefs. How does a person become so passionate about good food? What motivates them? And what can we learn from their success?
“Daughters of Destiny” (2017) – IMDb: 8.6/10
Filmed over seven years, this series follows the lives of a group of girls from Shanti Bhavan School in Tamil Nadu, India. The girls are all from India’s lowest caste, the untouchables. Many girls in their situation do not have access to education, but the non-profit Shanti Bhavan School offers them a rare opportunity.
Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker vanessa roth has interviewed the girls many times over the years. They are determined and inspiring, but also ordinary children. Among them, Karthika, who dreams of becoming a human rights lawyer, Preetha, who loves to sing, and Manjula, who carries the hopes of her family on her shoulders. It is a moving insight into their lives and the challenges they face. Urgent subject matter goes hand in hand with confident filmmaking and a moving score by the composer AR Rahmanbest known for his work on game of thrones.
“Making a Murderer” (2015) – IMDb: 8.6/10
make a murderer is a harrowing portrait of a flawed justice system. It centers on Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison after 18 years when new DNA evidence proved he was not the perpetrator of an attack in 1985. But that’s just the beginning. After filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the county that jailed him, Avery was arrested and convicted again, this time in connection with a gruesome murder. His nephew, Brendan Dasseywas accused of aiding him and was convicted.
make a murderer was a cultural event when the first season premiered in 2015. It attracted large audiences and a storm of publicity. It even resulted in a petition to pardon Avery with 500,000 signatures, which received an official response from the White House. The second season focuses on the aftermath of Avery and Dassey’s convictions and their attorney’s arguments that they were set up.
‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’ (2019) — IMDb: 8.6/10
Formula 1: drive to survive brings motorsport to life. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at the races, focusing on the dramas and rivalries. One of the highlights of the show is the fierce competition between Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes and the young Max Verstappena runner for Redbull.
Brought to Netflix by the company that runs Formula 1, Drive to survive is part journalism, part drama, and part public relations. It turned out to be a potent mix. The series has been incredibly popular and Formula 1 viewership has increased significantly since the show began. In 2022, a second US race was even added to the sport, suggesting that Formula 1’s popularity would only grow.
“The Greatest Events of WWII in Color” (2019) – IMDb: 8.7/10
come on the heels of peter jacksonit is They won’t grow old, The greatest events of the Second World War in color is a documentary series that uses the latest techniques to colorize archival footage of war. As its title suggests, it covers the defining events of the conflict, including Pearl Harbor, the D-Day landings and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
The series is interspersed with interviews with historians and people who lived through World War II, but the real draw here is the colorized footage. He really brings events to life, which can often seem distant, even otherworldly. It’s amazing how people are easier to understand when you see them in color. The show also features rare archival footage from Japan and Russia that even the biggest WWII enthusiasts may not have seen.
“Our Planet” (2019) – IMDb: 9.3/10
Our planet is a documentary on the nature of a living treasure David Attenborough and the team that produced his other series Earth and The blue planet. Like these documentaries, Our planet features stunning visuals of wildlife and natural environments, alongside classical music and Attenborough’s rich vocals.
But Our planet is ultimately sadder and more urgent than Attenborough’s other works. It focuses more on climate change and habitat loss, delivering a warning about the state of our world. As its title underlines: the Earth is now in our hands. It is up to humanity to decide what it becomes. Despite his sometimes gloomy tone, Our planet was a huge success. Netflix says over 100 million people have watched it.
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