Since entering The Time of COVID, we’ve found ourselves plonked in front of the TV more often than usual – but this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Thanks to the combination of passionate filmmakers and advances in technology, we have access to a huge number of important environmental documentaries, each one urging us to open our minds and take action in order to save Mother Earth.
Most of us have watched at least one documentary that has left us all mind-blown emoji. That’s the awesome power of truthful, engaging documentaries. But with this power often comes a mix of staunch lovers and haters. In fact, many of the films in this guide have garnered both support from celebrities and experts, but also criticism from participants or related organisations. So, what’s the best way to approach documentaries? We say: watch, research, decide for yourself, and act. #TeamPlanet
As the title suggests, this 2014 film takes a closer look at how the world of animal agriculture may not all be as it seems, specifically through the lens of the impact of farming on the environment. The documentary’s main priority is to show how factory farming is depleting the Earth’s natural resources and causing water waste, carbon emissions, and deforestation. When it was released, it sent shockwaves across the Internet for its raw, real perspective, and paved the way for other hard-hitting documentaries of its ilk to enter the mainstream. It was also backed by Leonardo Di Caprio.
Watch it on Netflix
The most recent eco-documentary from Netflix shines a light on sustainable seafood, the commercial fishing trade, and ocean decimation, bringing with it some shocking truths about dolphin-safe tuna and misleading labels. Made by the team who created Cowspiracy, this documentary has recently caused an especially large stir worldwide, dividing social media and prompting us to consider what it means to be truthful, to be a storyteller, to see the bigger picture, and to make a vital case. Read our review here.
Watch it on Netflix
Minimalism: A Documentary
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, AKA The Minimalists, have gained global recognition for sharing their stories and lessons about living a minimalist life. ‘What’s this got to do with sustainability?’ you may ask. Lots, actually. For a direct link to the environment, the documentary looks at shopping mania, excess, and waste, but it also connects with sustainability in a wider sense, too; the film features case studies and experts talking about everything from wellbeing and health to physical space and living consciously. Once you’ve finished with this one, check out their short 2020 film, Less is More, for additional insight.
Watch it on Netflix
Before The Flood
Leonardo DiCaprio has become as synonymous with protecting the planet as he has with acting. From discussing climate change with Al Gore in 1998 to founding Earth Alliance, the actor has spent much of his adult life trying to soothe and share what’s happening to our planet. In Before The Flood, made with National Geographic, Leo reveals the destruction we’re causing and speaks to world leaders, heads of environmental policy, scientists, those fighting for a better planet, and a palm oil giant. Oh – and he calls out big name brands that are causing serious harm.
The Ivory Game
In the same year as Before The Flood was released, another of Leo’s planet projects, The Ivory Game, was also sent out into the world. In this film, he flexes his producing muscles to expose the ivory trade. The team goes undercover in Asia to investigate the legal and illegal worlds of the international ivory trade and reveal the truth about elephant tusk poaching and the likelihood of the extinction of elephants. The Ivory Game calls governments and everyday folk to action, and leads by example – some of the poachers who appeared in the film were jailed following the film’s release.
Watch it on Netflix
This 2008 film is all about food, namely, how most American food is produced by just a handful of huge corporations – bad news for people and the planet. Filmmaker Robert Kenner is joined by Michael Pollan, an environment and food journalist, and Eric Schlosser, the reporter behind Fast Food Nation, as he uncovers how the American food model is causing massive problems for the environment and for people’s health. The gang also discover the foods (and approaches to food) that may lead to a better future.
Years of Living Dangerously
Hooray for Hollywood’s finest using their A-list status for good; this Emmy-winning, 2-season TV series sees big entertainment hitters such as Harrison Ford, Jessica Alba, and Matt Damon travel the globe and interview experts about topics such as carbon emissions and solar energy, as well as meet ordinary people who are facing the very real effects of climate change. Expect Joshua Jackson at the Great Barrier Reef, Jack Black investigating rising sea levels, and America Ferrara looking into coal mining. To give the show and its message even more clout, its producers include James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger
No Impact Man
Based on a book he wrote about a year-long experiment to reduce his carbon footprint, Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man follows his journey of giving up packaging, garbage, electricity, and many other daily comforts. Peppered with debates and discussions with his wife, Michelle, who is less eager to give up her modern consumer lifestyle, the film encourages audiences to think about their own habits, consider what’s essential to a balanced life and a balanced relationship, and explore the possibilities of having zero impact on the environment.
Kiss the Ground
Made by Josh Tickell, who once drove a van powered by used cooking oil across America, Kiss the Ground is a 2020 documentary about our relationship with soil and, in turn, the environment. Based on his book and made with his film-maker wife, Tickell zeroes in on the importance of soil to the climate crisis. The documentary, narrated by Woody Harrelson, argues that regenerating soil can refill our supply of water, save entire species from extinction, and better feed the world. The film has groundbreaking facts and ideas, beautiful visuals from NASA and ocean groups, insights from top experts, and a ton of film awards behind it.
Watch it on Netflix
The melting ice caps are one of the most common visuals used in the fight for climate change, and for good reason. Chasing Ice follows Nat Geo photographer James Balog as he goes on an expedition to Alaska, Iceland, and Greenland as part of The Extreme Ice Survey, which collects data on glacier changes. Through the use of time-lapse photography, Balog is able to document several years of climate change, showing just how quickly ancient glaciers are disappearing.
Five years after directing Chasing Ice, Jeff Orlowski returned to the environmental film scene with this piece on coral reefs, specifically coral bleaching and the effect of carbon emissions and pesticides. As well as showcasing the beautiful world that lives beneath the surface, through the work of divers, scientists, and photographers, the film also looks at the measurable, tangible effects that global warming is having on our oceans and what that means for their future.
Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has always fought for freedom, whether that’s political or, in this case, environmental. In Human Flow, he visits 23 countries to document the 2017 global refugee crisis, which saw 65 million people uprooted – the greatest human displacement since WWII. Combining traditional film footage, drone footage, and iPhone footage, the film captures the plight of people forced to flee their homes due to climate change, poverty, and war. Human Flow, which presents the stark reality of destroyed lands and frightened migrants, is a necessary watch.
No documentary guide worth it’s salt could omit Sir David Attenborough from its list. In this docuseries (a partnership between Netflix and WWF), the veteran wildlife presenter focuses on how climate change is impacting our ecosystem. Over the course of eight episodes, Our Planet delivers the observations, knowledge, and cinematography we’ve come to expect from anything by Attenborough – but with an important message: humans are ruining the balance of the ecosystem, and in only twenty years’ time, we’ll be faced with the Earth we have created.
Watch it on Netflix
Not everyone vibes with hard-hitting exposés, which is where Tomorrow steps in. This French film cheerfully meets ordinary people around the world who are being innovative when it comes to sustainability. From urban gardening to democracy enthusiasm, the upbeat documentary explores interesting, alternative ways to approach energy, farming, education, and economics, and shares the stories of everyday heroes.
The Human Element
Photographer extraordinaire James Balog returns, this time to convey how nature’s four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), are being affected by the human element. In this 2019 film, he travels America, meeting people whose lives have been derailed by climate change – whether that’s pollution, rising sea levels, extreme weather, or the general disrespect of natural resources. As well as showcasing the reality of climate change, the film encourages viewers to reassess their relationship with nature and how it’s intertwined in their lives.
An Inconvenient Truth
One of the original eco documentaries, 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth is centred around then-Vice President Al Gore’s campaign for climate change education. The film is based on a speech and slideshow Gore started presenting in 1998 in order to raise international awareness of the ‘planetary emergency’ the world was facing. The film uses his own personal experiences as well as scientific opinion to explore topics under the general global warming umbrella, such as CO2 emissions and sea levels. In 2017, the sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, was released, detailing the progress that had been made since the first film, Gore’s efforts to convince leaders to invest in renewable energy, and the signing of the Paris Agreement.
A Plastic Ocean
In A Plastic Ocean, journalist (and one of GITNB’s green warriors) Craig Leeson, along with diver Tanya Streeter and a team of scientists, travels to 21 places around the world over the course of four years to document the state of our oceans and the marine life that lives there. The film provides a broad, realistic view of our seas and what’s at stake, from magnificent blue whales moving through their natural habitat to sea birds whose deaths are likely caused by the accumulated plastic in their bodies. The documentary received an extremely positive response following its release – the Mexican government even took a step towards banning single-use plastic after watching.
The True Cost
This 2015 documentary, funded by Kickstarter, sheds light on the fast fashion industry – both what it is and how it affects people and the planet. Called to action by the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed over 1,000 workers, director Andrew Morgan travelled the globe to conduct research and speak to a variety of people involved in the fashion business, including Stella McCartney and People Tree’s Safia Minney. The True Cost touches on all elements of the fast. fashion world, from mass media and global capitalism to landfills and pesticide contamination, but its main focus is on the low-wage workers who produce the garments we see, buy, and wear every day.
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