Saturday, March 08, 2014

I have watched over 100 documentaries in the last ten years.

And I've decided that's an accomplishment.

Despite the length of this list, I actually slowed down on documentaries a little bit for a while there, partly because I was busy watching every single episode of "Chopped" ever. (I go on TV show binges...last semester, it was "Ancient Aliens.") But here are a handful of recommendations! Most of them are on Netflix. Happy learning!

Inside North Korea
I've recently discovered that North Korea is this terrifying real-life dystopia and it scares the crap outta me. This is an interesting look at life in North Korea--as accurately as can be portrayed by an illegal undercover journalist posing as part of an eye surgeon's crew. BECAUSE REAL JOURNALISTS AREN'T ALLOWED INTO NORTH KOREA. For a good basic intro to the whole North Korea situation, check out this blog. (Warning: Language.)

The September Issue
A glimpse into the world of Vogue magazine and the biggest issue of the year. I love the world of fashion. For some, it's materialistic and stupid, but I can't ignore the creativity and theatricalism of it all. This is also a great glimpse at the personalities of Anna Wintour, Editor in Chief, and Grace Coddington, creative director.

Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation
I'm in love with the 1960s. Especially in US History. Man, everything turned upside down. This is an awesome look at how one small artistic neighborhood in New York City helped shape an entire generation. So awesome.

Vanishing of the Bees
This got a little preachy/propaganda-y towards the end, but it's a really good overview of the current bee situation. Bee colonies are dying all over the world, but especially in the United States. This documentary goes over the causes, the people trying to solve things, and what's really at stake. It also reiterated to me the sad truth that Europe errs on the side of caution, and America errs on the side of "Oh crap I won't make a ton of money."

When We Left Earth (series)
I LOVED THIS SO MUCH!!! Here's something new I didn't really think about. A lot of those folks who pioneered space exploration--at least the ones who actually went into space--weren't scientists. They were Air Force guys. They were familiar with operating complicated machinery and could stay cool under pressure. Which was a really good thing because there were dozens and dozens of times when things created a lot of pressure. For example, did you know that when the Hubble first started sending pictures back to earth, they were BLURRY? The lens hadn't been sanded quite right. Then, once they fixed that, the solar panel wings on the Hubble didn't work. So the folks out in space had to radio back to earth what was wrong, and what they had with them to fix it. Then mission control had to mess around and engineer some sort of solution and then radio instructions back to space. All without video or email or anything--just radio voice communication. Oh, and it all had to be done right away because there wasn't enough oxygen to prolong the repair mission.

Jane's Journey
I didn't know much about Jane Goodall until this documentary. All I knew is that she worked with chimpanzees and was a humanitarian. This gives a good overview of who she is and how she got to be who she is. I didn't know this--when Jane first began her work with apes, she had no degree. She was a 19-year-old high school graduate who was just passionate about studying wildlife in Africa and found an opportunity to do so. Pretty cool, huh?

Echo of the Elephants
Watch it here
I have a deep and spiritual love for elephants. They're so intelligent, and live such vivid emotional lives. For example, when they come upon the bones of an elephant, they become quiet and wary. They spend hours running their trunks over the bones, and often attempt to carry them away, hiding or burying them. They don't do this with the remains or bones of any other creature. They live in matriarchal societies, with extremely close family ties, and have the same lifespan as humans. This documentary follows a short time in the family of a matriarch named Echo, and she and her family deal with loss, hunger, new beginnings, and everything else that comes with family life. (Also, 29:00 = CUTEST THING EVER!)

Dolphins: The Ultimate Guide
Cheeeesy, but informative and fun. I'm a little suspicious of some of their claims after having watched "Blackfish," but there's some great info here.

Ken Burns: Prohibition (series)
Ken Burns is the classic historical documentary film-maker, and this series is awesome. The thing I love about Ken Burns is that he realizes that history doesn't happen in a vacuum--everything is the result of what came before it. The story of Prohibition doesn't start with the 18th Amendment in 1920. It starts way back in the 1800s, with Temperance Societies. Having context for Prohibition rounds out your understanding of it. This documentary starts with Temperance and ends with the the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition.

Ken Burns: Jazz (series)
Another great example of Ken Burns' understanding of history. If ever you want an understanding of jazz--its theory, its history, its traditions, its conventions--watch this documentary. It covers everything from old slave spirituals to the tightly orchestrated dance music of Glenn Miller. The history of jazz is also a history of race issues--there's no way around it, and this documentary does a great job of addressing that.

Al Capone: Biography of a Mob Boss
Watch it here
How to Control the Press: Lessons from Al Capone
If a newspaper reporter is printing disparaging things about you, wait until he's walking home alone. Then get six guys to beat him up. Then pay his hospital bill. Then buy the newspaper.
But seriously guys, Al Capone. He's such an interesting figure because nowadays, the image we have of him is split down the middle--generous gangster with a heart of gold, or selfish and ruthless murderer. And both are based in truth. On the one hand, Capone WAS generous, and he was willing to provide employment to hundreds of people during the Great Depression. He also had refused to deal in narcotics, so that's cool. On the other hand, he was doing a lot of things that were wrong, both legally and morally. He also was a murderer, and a ruthless one. So watch the documentary...I'll let you come to your own conclusions.

Oh my gosh. If you only watch one documentary on this list, WATCH THIS ONE. So awesome. I actually cried at the beauty of humanity while watching this. This documentary is about how a TV show for little girls (My Little Pony) transcended its own genre, and created a community of people (many of them men) devoted to messages of friendship and kindness. As Lauren Faust, the creator of the show said, "To people who feel that an adult man watching a show that's meant for little girls, if they think that's wrong or that that's strange, I would say this. I would ask them 'Why do you think that's strange? What about that makes you uncomfortable?' As a society I think our first reaction is to jump to the conclusion that there's something wrong with that. But I think that that's what needs to be changed. We need to allow men to be gentle, and to be sensitive, and to care about one another, and not call them weak for caring."

King Tut Unwrapped
First of all, the name of this documentary is undeniably hilarious, so let's just acknowledge that for a moment. Okay, now that that's out of the way, this is a pretty cool documentary. If you're fairly familiar with ancient Egypt and King Tut, this documentary doesn't offer a whole lot of new information. But it does present it all clearly and interestingly. "Forensics and archeology come together to solve mysteries neither of them could do on their own." Also features Zahi Hawass, whom I find delightful. (Even though, in light of the recent upheaval in Egypt, he MIGHT have been in Mubarak's pocket?)

Smithsonian's Secrets: Richard III
So remember a few years ago, when British newspapers announced that the remains of Richard III had been found under a parking lot in Leichester. Well, the whole story is SO MUCH MORE EXCITING. Phillipa Langley, of the Looking for Richard Project, compared antique maps with current maps to make an educated guess about where the site of an old church might be, where Richard III might be buried. It was a parking lot, and when she walked onto the site, she said she got an eerie feeling that it was the right place. It took years and a lot of convincing of a lot of different people to even start digging, but they finally did. It was a needle-in-a-haystack, no-one-really-knows-what-we'll-find situation, so on the first day of the dig, they asked Phillipa, "Where should we start?" She looked around, and saw a parking spot marked with a letter "R." She told them to start there. AND THEY FOUND BONES.

Smithsonian's Secrets: The Sphinx
Not the most riveting documentary, but a decent glimpse into the history of the Sphinx. There are a lot of different theories about the age and purpose and creation of the Sphinx, and this documentary goes through all of them, finally focusing on the most accepted.

Smithsonian's The Real Story: Escape From Alcatraz
I kinda like these "The Real Story" documentaries that Smithsonian's been putting on Netflix. Most people are familiar with the story of Frank Morris and Charles and John Anglin, who escaped Alcatraz in 1962, using dummy heads and a life raft made of raincoats. The jury's still out on what happened to them, and it's generally believed that they drowned. The story was solidified in the cultural mind with the Clint Eastwood film, but as always, Hollywood's version is the story-telling version--not the true version. The true version is that a guy named Allen West seemed to have been the mastermind behind the plan. He didn't make it out with the others, but it seems that he had every intention to. (This documentary also has wonderful re-enactments, with stand right on the border between legitimate film and cheesy low-budget work.)

Smithsonian's The Real Story: The Untouchables
A bit more Al Capone history. This is another case of popular culture highjacking the truth. William Ness often gets credit for "bringing down Capone." He was seen as this incorruptible force for good. (Which he actually was--at one point, Capone's men came to him and said that if he left Capone alone, he'd find $2000 on his desk every Monday morning for the rest of his career. Which is the equivalent of around $25,000 in today's money. $25,000. EVERY MONDAY. William Ness declined the offer.) But the reality is that for all of Ness' work making arrests and destroying distilleries, it didn't make much of a legal dent in putting Capone away. His part in Capone's arrest was almost non-existent--his work was never used in any trial against Capone. Ness' role was glorified in a book written by Oscar Fraley in the 1950s, who knew what would sell and wrote according to that, as opposed to writing according to the truth. The truth is that Capone was jailed for tax evasion. And the man who found enough evidence to bring Capone to trial was an unassuming accountant named Frank Wilson. (Also, the actor they got to play William Ness really looks like William Ness.) 

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