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Best Netflix documentaries to watch in 2020

  • Written by  Geographical
  • Published in Films
Best Netflix documentaries to watch in 2020
13 Oct
2020 has, for many of us, been a dramatic year. One that has changed the way we see the world and our place within it. Luckily, there is a wealth of documentaries to help us make sense of it all. From nature stories, to dystopian, geopolitical dramas, here's Geographical's selection of the best eye-opening documentaries from around the world

The Social Dilemma:

You may have seen The Social Network, in which a baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenhower, creates his college’s social networking page, and inadvertently changes the course of human society forever with the invention of Facebook. Since the film was released, we’ve become more attuned to the dangers that social media places on our personal and social lives, as well as to the integrity of our democratic processes. Fitting then, that 2020 sees the release of The Social Dilemma, Jeff Orlowski’s compelling deconstruction of the operations behind the social media industry. The film slowly excoriates the advert-powered business models of tech giants – including those those behind Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – as dangerous manipulators of our behaviour. At the documentary’s core is a message that the tech industry is sorely in need of more stringent ethical and moral regulation. As technology and social media become deeply integrated with our daily lives, the film becomes a wake-up call to avert from the dystopia that we may yet find ourselves in.  


My Octopus Teacher

After years of overworking, film-maker Craig Foster sought to re-engage with his natural subject matter, taking time off work to freedive off the coast of South Africa. Peering through the murky waters of the shallows, two pairs of eyes – each belonging to sentient life forms – stared at each other in mutual fascination. As Foster ventured to the surface, the octopus that held his gaze softly clung to his arm in an apparent moment of interspecies curiosity. The moment awakened Foster’s fascination for the ways in which we relate to intelligent, non-human entities in the natural world. Peter Godfrey-Smith’s breakthrough 2016 book Other Minds perfectly captured the wonders of intelligent life beyond the human experience. Now in 2020, My Octopus Teacher is a meditative, visual guide to appreciating and respecting the complexities of life on our planet.


American Factory

Distrust between the superpowers of America and China has peaked in the era of Covid-19. The Trump Administration’s barbs at China for its handling of the initial outbreak have flared tensions between the nations. A flurry of political blows has ensued: America’s consulate in Chengdu closed on orders from Beijing on 27 July; America ceased to recognise Hong Kong as distinct from mainland China, and claimed a victory in its campaign against the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. There’s no more fascinating time then, to watch American Factory, which depicts the culture-clash of a Chinese-owned manufacturing facility in the state of Ohio. In 2014, the Chinese glass manufacturer Fuyao promised to rekindle the crushed economy of Ohio, where car plants have been shutting down since 2008. Fuyao were awarded more than $6 million in subsidies from Ohio state taxpayers. In came a wave of Chinese workers, bringing with them a very different working culture and ethic to their American counterparts. As factory operations come under review from a newfound blend of American and Chinese executives, a fascinating diorama for modern Sino–American relations begins to unfold before our eyes.


The Edge of Democracy

Petra Costa’s 2019 documentary brings a startling perspective on Brazil’s political troubles over the last few years. The Edge of Democracy showcases the descent of Brazilian politics into populism. Reaching deep into the annals of historical footage, Costa chronicles the history of Brazilian politics. From the birth of the country’s democracy, the corruption scandals and eventual impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff in 2015, to the election of populist Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, this documentary is a piercing guide to Brazil’s democracy.

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Crip Camp

Camp Jened, founded in 1951, offered its disabled campers a haven in which to freely live and express themselves away from the judgement of non-disabled citizens. The location is a backdrop for the eventual emergence of the disabled civil rights movement of 1977. The grassroots movement was led by activists and former Camp Jened attendees, who were tired of being denied opportunities of employment and medical care. Director and former camper Jim LeBrecht, helped by executive producers Barack and Michelle Obama, bring a wholesome and important tale of how youth-led activism overcame the systematic discrimination of the time.


The Great Hack

In 2016, Cambridge Analytica harvested data from millions of Facebook users, which they used to create a ‘behavioural psychography’ database – access to which was sold to the Trump campaign to target potential voters with political content. Evidence suggests that the campaign's use of this data broke financial law. Nothing short of bedlam erupted when in-house whistleblowers spoke up to expose the company’s involvement, which would later embroil Facebook in a tumultuous legal battle surrounding the inappropriate use of citizen data. In July 2019, the Federal Trade Commission voted to approve fining Facebook nearly $5 billion to settle the investigation into its involvement with the Trump and Leave.eu campaigns. The upcoming US election brings the possibility of four more years of the Trump administration. At such political crossroads, The Great Hack makes for powerful viewing, exposing how data can be used to influence democratic processes.


David Attenborough – A Life on Our Planet

A retrospective look at the career of the famed and beloved naturalist David Attenborough, or an urgent message to heal our political divides for the sake of the natural world? The much talked about documentary traces the growth of Attenborough’s career, which though remarkable and rich, parallels the ecological breakdown that has become the defining issue of our times. The tone hits a different note to its predecessors in Our Planet, Blue Planet or the original Life On Earth series – a sterner Attenborough directs the lens not merely on the creatures and climate that we have a moral duty to protect, but on the very survival of our own species.. 


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