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17 Documentaries That Expand Your Mind

Updated on November 6, 2021
Kenna McHugh profile image

I work in modeling and film production and like to share insights into both businesses.



Nick Fraser is a British documentary producer. He devoted seventeen years at the BBC to create and run the international documentary series Storyville, which showcased international documentaries. He said, “The best documentaries are independent. They don’t exist to serve interests, philanthropic or otherwise.”

I agree with Frazer because most documentaries I’ve seen today are slanted to suit a particular vested interest group connected to the filmmaker who twists facts.

The following documentaries may not be factual, but I found their production value high because they got me thinking and expanding my intellect.

1. "Pavarotti: Genius Is Forever"

Oscar-winner Ron Howard takes the viewers on a journey of the life and times of Luciano Pavarotti. The opera singer who brought the art of opera to millions all over the world. The trailer is an exploration of the legend and voice of Pavarotti. Wherever the man went, and he sang and made history. Howard's movie is intimate with interviews and sacred footage.

2. "Kusama: Infinity"

The movie is a visual introduction to one of the world's most talented artists. Heather Lenz takes us on an extraordinary, truthful, emotional journey with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's six-decade career. She left Japan, arrived in New York City, and developed her artistic signature. She persevered and has created artwork ranging from painting and sculpture to installation art.

3. "Love, Gilda"

Director Lisa D'Apolito spins a sad story based on journals, recordings, and scrapbooks from Gilda. Despite D'Apolito's demoralizing content, Love, Gilda captured my attention from the very beginning of the movie.

The documentary shows Gilda growing up and becoming an Emmy winner. I found that worth watching. The younger versions of the original Saturday Night Live cast sparked my interest because Bill Murray was as handsome as Chevy Chase. Gilda's talent shined through.

4. "Jay Myself"

Jay Maisel lived in "The Bank" for 48 years. The renowned photographer reluctantly moved from the 35,000 square foot building in New York City. But, the documentary is about his life and shows many photos taken by Maisel - a gifted photographer. Photographers or artists should find this movie fascinating.

5. "Rebound"

The documentary Rebound follows the lives of three wheelchair basketball players. They undergo hardships and never give up. They are gifted athletes not yet unrecognized by mainstream sports.

6. "The Landing"

The Landing is a parody of documentaries because they are no longer about capturing the truth. They are propaganda similar to Hitler's Triumph of Will.

It's a fake documentary about one of the Apollo missions going wrong, and NASA covered it up.

The Landing received awards as Best Director 2017 Boston Sci-Film Festival – Best Thriller 2017 Burbank International Film Festiva, and Best Feature 2017 Escape Velocity, Washington, D.C.

7. "I Am Big Bird"

The documentary is a treasure of clips and anecdotes about the Muppets creator and super-talented Jim Henson. Openly, a great friend of the Caroll Spinney's, seeing Henson is touching. The documentary shares footage and memories of working with Henson. A poignant scene takes place in an overcrowded cathedral at Henson's funeral, where Big Bird sings, "It's Not Easy Being Green."

8. "Science Fair"

Award-winning documentary directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster present Science Fair. The documentary won the audience award at Sundance and SXSW 2018.

The movie trailer is fun to watch because I understand why Science Fairs are worthwhile experiences for intelligent kids.

9. "Perfect"

Directed by Jeremie Battaglia, Perfect is an award-winning documentary. The movie focuses on the Canadian synchronized swimming team.

The story goes beyond the beauty and shows the challenging earn position as the qualifying team for the Rio Olympics 2016. The movie won the Best Documentary at the Winter Film Awards.


10. "Pick of the Litter"

My family lived near the guide dog training facility in San Rafael when I was just a toddler. My mother told me I loved the guide dogs. They put a smile on my face, and I wanted to see them all the time.

With that, Pick of the Litter received several accolades for being a documentary that tells the truth or offers an insight into what it takes for a cute, cuddly puppy to become a guide dog for the blind.

Dana Nachman and Don Hardy directed the movie that follows a litter of puppies from birth, beginning their destiny and developing into guide dogs for the blind.

Nachman wrote the screenplay covering two years of the dogs' training into their most rewarding responsibility - protecting their blind masters from harm.

Watching the documentary trailer gives you a good idea of what these dogs go through. Not every dog becomes a guide dog. Though, you will cheer for them as they try their best. We can only wish they develop into the pick of the litter.

11. "Whitney"

The poster for the documentary Whitney says "all the answers," but I disagree. Whitney Houston's talent leaped no bounds yet, like a Shakespeare tragedy. Her life was a roller coaster ride.

Watch the movie trailer, and you will see poignant moments, almost too hard to watch. If only Houston made better decisions. Her voice, music, and talent would still be with us today.

12. Fahrenheit 11/9

I worked with Michael Moore on Bowling for Columbine. He and his crew came to my hometown and designated me the driver, craft services (he loves chocolate), and all-around production assistant. I can honestly say he is a nice guy. He is a professional who knows his vision and gets it. With that, I had no idea I was working on an Academy Award movie.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is another documentary by Moore, and I recommend you study his style to see how he gets his message across. That is what he does with all his documentaries. He gets his message across by making his movie is provocative, thought-provoking, and funny. It focuses on the 2016 United States presidential election. He takes a stab at the next presidency of Donald Trump.

13. "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Mr. Fred Rogers told kids they were special, unlike anyone else in the whole world, each unique. I remember when my daughter watched his show, and he played a video about how manufacturers made crayons. We both learned something new.

I highly recommend you watch this documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for the documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, it follows the life and work of Rogers. The movie explained how he is known as America's cherished neighbor.

The documentary follows a man who wore zip-up cardigans and lived in the land of make-believe. In watching this movie, I discovered something unique about him. Sure, he played a big part in educational TV and was an ultimate genius. He influenced so many lives that there is more about man worth finding out.

I watched the trailer, and tears formed in my eyes. Mr.Rogers was such an inspiration to the world.

14. "Maria by Callas"

If you are a lover of opera or fandom, you will like this documentary about the life of Maria Callas. She led a life read on headlines. The media played along with her tumultuous life reporting the conflicts and scandals that plagued her life.

She dominated the opera scene as the world's greatest opera singer who ever lived. Regardless, her career failed to last a long time, with early death by a heart attack. Posthumously, her story scandalized the newspapers with conflict over her trust.

15. "Amazing Grace"

Waiting 40 years for the technology to advance enough to sync the music with the footage, Amazing Grace finally arrived in the movie theaters and is now available on disc or streaming. Directed by the late Sydney Pollack and finished by Alan Elliot, Aretha Franklin sings with the New Bethel Baptist Church choir recording her live "Amazing Grace" album in 1972.

Watch the trailer and get a glimpse of a young Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.

16. “Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins”

The documentary tells the story of a woman who evolved with the times through decades of being a journalist. She not only change in physical appearance but spiritually, as well. She had the passion and a definite purpose in life that took its toll. Even though her message resonates with me, we need to vote and hold firmly to what we consider substantially important. Raise Hell: The Life & Times of Molly Ivins is a movie you want to see to understand the history and a mortal woman's ability to tell the truth and shame the devil.

17. "Roadrunner"

Morgan Neville brings us Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, a documentary about Chef, provocateur, adventure and writer. Neville also brought us Won't You Be My Neighbor? and other worthy documentaries.

Neville creates an intimate portrait of a man who became a cultural icon. His extensive research includes interviews, an unflinching look at Bourdain's thunderous presence and how he indelibly influenced the world.

Documentary Best

The list of documentaries stands considerably varied by subject and genre. I hope you get a chance to watch one or more of them. All in all, I am impressed with the documentarians. These movies are not for the light-hearted or for those who strictly want entertainment. They expand your mind and show you a world you've, most likely, never seen until now.

© 2018 Kenna McHugh


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