Documentaries serve a number of purposes. They can educate. They can inform. But the most powerful ones go far beyond education and information: They change the world. It’s an empowering idea for a filmmaker. To be able to put something on a screen for millions to see, and have them walk out of that theater not just with a new perspective, but also with a burning desire to make the world we live in a better place.
One could argue that such a reaction is the very reason documentaries exist in a cinematic world wrought with fiction that takes us away from reality. They bring us back from that escape into a place where we can see things for what they are at face value.
1. Blackfish (2013)
Practically every child who grew up in California remembers his or her family trip to Sea World. You got to go see fish, eat cotton candy, and most importantly go see the show starring the beautiful trained orca whales. In 2013, Blackfish appeared, crumbling this illusion into dust and showing us just how inhumane the treatment of those whales is. Hollywood Reporter estimates that directly following the release, Seaworld saw an almost 5% dip in revenue and a 4.3% drop in attendance. A bill was even introduced in the California state legislature as a direct result of the documentary that would effectively ban captive orcas used for entertainment.
2. Super Size Me (2004)
Morgan Spurlock has made a career as an activist documentary filmmaker, but Super Size Me was where it all started. For the doc, he ate nothing but McDonald’s for an entire month, experiencing rapid weight gain, a massive increase in lethargy, an uptick in his cholesterol, and a whole host of other health problems. Six weeks after it took Sundance by storm, McDonald’s took the “Super Size” option off of their menu, and by no coincidence the fast food chain introduced “Go Active” adult meals just a day before the wide release, designed to infuse healthier options into their menu.
3. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
We all may be familiar with Al Gore’s revolutionary documentary, but it’s worth observing its direct effect almost a decade after the fact. Back in 2006, climate change was widely considered to be a theory. Pundits were generally split down the middle as to whether or not human beings indeed were causing a global crisis that would have wide-reaching effects on future generations. But along came An Inconvenient Truth, and suddenly the climate change debate began leaning in the “this is definitely happening” direction. Nowadays, there’s still a stark partisan divide, but the scientific community is virtually unanimous in saying this is the issue of our generation.
4. Why We Fight (1942-45)
This one technically isn’t a single documentary, but Frank Capra’s series of World War II propaganda movies turned the tide of public opinion in huge ways in the United States. The legendary director was tasked by the United States government to sell the war to its citizens, and sell it he did. It’s easy for us to forget, but there was a huge movement in our country in the early 1940s to stay out of what was viewed as Europe’s war. Following Pearl Harbor and Capra’s films though, we were united on the homefront enough to enter the fray, and from there, the rest, of course, was history.
5. The Invisible War (2012)
Here in the United States, changing the way the military works is almost impossible. But with The Invisible War covering the horrific rape culture that exists within the military, we saw reform arrive almost instantly. The documentary itself interviewed over 100 former servicewomen and men about the prevalent culture of sexual abuse in the military. Two days after screening the film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reformed the structure of reporting sexual abuse, giving victims more options to report it to the proper authorities (before they could only report abuse to their direct superior, who was often the one responsible).
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