Broaden your horizons – and that dent in the sofa – with six of the best documentaries streaming on Netflix right now
THE PROPAGANDA GAME (2015)
Directed by Alvaro Longoria – 1h 33m
‘In theory we were allowed to interview anyone we wanted,’ says Alvaro Longoria, one of very few documentary directors ever permitted to film in North Korea. What he found there may have the power to change how you view the secretive state, as well as how you perceive your own. Shown around the country on a rare press trip, Longoria films the people as they are rarely seen: getting on with everyday life. He interviews strangers, questions their devotion to their leader, Kim Jong-Un, and is stumped by their unwavering reactions. In equal measure, he challenges the inflammatory approach of the western press, and how information becomes misinformation. ‘Everybody knows they do things differently,’ says a tour guide over scenes of children playing football in Pyongyang and the casual throng of a wedding reception, ‘what we forget is that there is life, there are 24 million people living here.’
VALLEY UPRISING (2014)
Directed by Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen – 1h 38m
These guys were climbing before it was cool. Valley Uprising is about how Yosemite National Park became the cradle of a rock climbing revolution. An original fringe community became a raging 1960s counterculture movement that anchored itself to the vertical granite of Yosemite's ‘bigwalls’. A mixture of interviews and stomach-churning footage, it shows how gravity was not their only challenge – the rock’s devotees were constantly at loggerheads with the local authorities and rangers.
THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON (2014)
Directed by Mark Craig – 1hr 36 mins
‘We were so focused on getting to the moon, we never thought about what would happen when we came back,’ says elderly astronaut, Eugene Cernan. Craig’s film begins with Cernan’s slow descent down a ladder on his farm’s water tank, an image that is charmingly reminiscent of climbing down a landing craft. ‘Except if I fall here I break my butt,’ he says through gritted teeth. The Apollo missions were almost 50 years ago now, and though the grainy images of the young men wandering around the lunarscape are still replayed, the ageing lives of the astronauts have slipped from view. Through the eyes of Cernan – the last man to go to the moon – the film is largely about life after space. How relationships with his wife and his children were impacted by spending so much time at NASA – a sacrifice he describes as ‘selfish’ with hindsight – and the life he created for himself when the missions ended. At 82, his evocative description of watching an Earthrise, is richer from the years of experience he has had since.
Directed by Steve Greenwood – 3 episodes, 60 mins
The BBC Natural History Unit is at it again with this beautiful series on sharks and it wants to set the record straight. Despite the fact that vending machines kill more people, the shark-as-predator has been the subject of smear campaigns time and time again. This three-parter gets beyond the animal’s teeth to look at the shark as a navigator, migrator and reproducer. They actually doesn’t eat humans very often, so what do they eat? How do they sleep? Where do they live? ‘You think of Great Whites as having these black, soulless eyes,’ series producer, Paul Butler, told the Daily Telegraph, ‘but they actually have a beautiful blue iris. They look at you, and they know you’re not food.’ Put together from over 2,500 hours of underwater footage and flinchingly-close encounters, this series may have you swimming towards sharks, not away from them.
THE MASK YOU LIVE IN, (2015)
Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newson – 1h 32m
How can we change the status quo if we are born into it? Children are introduced gender norms before they can walk: assigned colours, given different toys exposed to TV shows that pervade cultural ideals. Being told to ‘man-up’ is an acceptable taunt, and acting ‘like a girl’ (or worse) is a normal insult. This documentary on the American ‘boy crisis’ explores the obsession of Western society with male masculinity. How the push to be seen at the masculine end of the spectrum enforces a hierarchy among men, and then among men and women. ‘It’s the great set-up,’ says Dr Caroline Heldman, a political scientist, mid-way through the documentary, ‘we raise boys to become men, whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine, and then we are surprised when they don't see women as being fully human.’
Produced by Michael Pollan – 4 episodes, 60 minutes
Cooked doesn’t follow exotic ingredients, it follows processes. An episode that begins on an aboriginal hunt in the outback for goanna lizards ends up with a BBQ ‘pitmaster’ in South Carolina, all in the name of fire. ‘What cooking does is relieves us from the work of chewing,’ says Michael Pollan, producer of the series and author of the book of the same name. ‘When you look at primates who eat raw food, they spend half their waking hours chewing – it’s no wonder they never get anything done.’ Jokes aside, Cooked explores the more serious ways that cooking informs culture. In the first episode this focuses on the Martu people in Western Australia, an aboriginal group who are rarely filmed. They lived off the land with campfires until the 1960s, when the government began a process of assimilation. ‘We didn't know about non-Martu fire back then,’ says an elder at the campfire, ‘we had our fire.’ The remaining three episodes correspond to the other three elements: water, air and earth.
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