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Educational Documentaries to Watch

During the initial lockdown, many of us turned to streaming services as a source of comfort to get through the long days without our closest friends, or to grant a sense of  normality — maybe we could make lockdown feel like one long weekend. Like most others, I spent lockdown evenings on a constant television binge, however, unlike a lot of other people, I turned to documentaries and non-fiction instead of traditional escapism. The list that follows compiles some of the most insightful and informative documentaries that I discovered during the early months of this year.


Blackfish (2013)

This film follows the story of a SeaWorld orca named Tilikum who was the subject of much controversy due to his aggressive tendencies which resulted in the deaths of three people. Blackfish is very much an ode to the plight of captive killer whales, who have been subjected to innumerable acts of cruelty in the name of entertaining the public at SeaWorld. This film does not shy away from exploring the fact that wild orcas are often separated from their mothers and subsequently held captive in continuers that are far too small for animals of their size, causing shortened lifespans and prolonged health issues. Although Blackfish is a difficult film to watch, it remains an important cinematic milestone in terms of blowing the whistle on SeaWorld’s unethical practices.


Athlete A (2020)

As any avid viewer of documentaries will be aware, the #MeToo movement has spawned a wave of films that discuss cases of sexual assault, especially those where a large scale cover-up was attempted. Of course, this genre is not for everyone but it must also be acknowledged that by refusing to discuss the prevalence of gender-based abuse within our society, we are complicit in its occurrence. Athlete A follows the work of investigative journalists as they uncover a scandal within American gymnastics. An abuse of power by a doctor was discovered to be widespread within the Olympian gymnast team with victims forced into silence by the refusal of USA Gymnastics to address or even take the claims of assault seriously. 


Citizenfour (2014)

This documentary focuses on Edward Snowden, who is currently an asylum seeker in Russia as a direct result of the events recounted within this film. As an ex-employee of the National Security Agency, Snowden decided to risk his life and blow the whistle on the fact that the NSA was actively spying on foreign and US citizens, collecting huge amounts of personal data without consent. Citizenfour seems to become more and more relevant with each passing year, as we learn more about how our data is abused by social networking giants. The highly controversial nature of this film was rewarded, however, when it won Best Documentary Feature at the 87th Academy Awards.


13th (2016)

13th is a film that I recommend to anyone and everyone who asks me if I’ve watched anything interesting on Netflix lately. Named after the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States constitution which ultimately abolished slavery, this film identifies and thoroughly examines the long-term consequences that the Atlantic slave trade still commands over modern society. With an Academy Award nomination, this film received huge praise from audiences and critics alike for its skilful identification of the role that the prison-industrial complex plays in oppressing black men in the US. 13th raises issues that remain valuable topics of discussion in terms of the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, concisely illustrating the idea that slavery is very much alive and well in American society. 


Louis Theroux: Dark States (2017)

When looking for a documentary series rather than a film, Louis Theroux’s catalogue is generally a good place to start. Dark States is another documentary that touches on sensitive topics, although it provides a highly informative glance inside the immense damage that drugs can cause to individuals, families, and relationships. As always, Louis approaches his interviewees with a degree of caution and emotional vulnerability, resulting in a series that is in equal parts an insightful and heartbreaking dive into the addiction epidemic that has gripped the United States in recent years. 


With a few more weeks of lockdown ahead of us, there’s no shame in turning to our television screens for some comfort. We’re living in strange and unprecedented times, so we’re allowed to take personal time to prevent ourselves from burning out. For many, television is a comfort food that we have used since a very young age, and for me personally, seeing documentaries explore far-away issues and locations is just what I need to help settle me into the longer winter nights ahead.

MA Journalism student at DCU
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