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Top 12 Documentaries That Will Open Your Mind To Other Cultures

A good documentary will open your eyes to aspects of the world that were otherwise unknown to you. They will inform your opinions on the world by showcasing things that may otherwise go unseen and giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless. From the large experience of nations to those of small towns and tribes, here are 12 documentaries that will open your mind to other cultures from around the world.

Baraka (1992)

Shot in 25 countries over six continents, Baraka has become one of the most successful and acclaimed documentaries to explore human life around the world. What is more impressive is that it eschews traditional narrative or voiceover, acting more as a ‘guided meditation on humanity’. It largely lets the visuals speak for themselves, though manipulating the photography through time-lapse and slow motion in some parts, overall allowing the viewers time to reflect on the different cultures that are shown.

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)

This Oscar-winning documentary is a portrait of the lives of some of the children who live in Calcutta‘s red light district, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids was originally part of director Zana Briski‘s photography project. While in the area, she gave cameras to some of the children. Much of the film’s footage was recorded by the children, providing both a closer look at life in the area than would otherwise be possible, as well as showing the resilience of these children.

5 Broken Cameras (2011)

The conflict in Israel and Palestine is constantly being shown on TV news, though, by its nature it pays little regard to the people that live there. In 5 Broken Cameras, Emad Burnat, a self-taught Palestinian cameraman, provides a personal, first-hand account around his life and the non-violent protests in the West Bank village of Bil’in. The film is structured into five chapters, one for each of Burnat’s cameras over time, and shows the evolution and ongoing upheaval within the area.

Favela Rising (2005)

Brazil‘s favelas have been the subject of a number of films over the years, though usually in dramatic fiction. Favela Rising follows a former drug trafficker who was still haunted by the murders of many of his family and friends, showing the many dark sides to this feared slum. However, it also shows the social revolution within, which is largely being pushed forward by a love of hip-hop music and Afro-Brazilian dance. The film is a portrait of both hardship and hope, and the power of community.

God Grew Tired Of Us (2006)

God Grew Tired Of Us follows three boys from Sudan as they endeavour to move to the United States. The boys are some of the 25,000 Lost Boys of Sudan who fled the Sudanese wars from the 1980s, and many of whom spent years wandering around sub-Saharan Africa in search of safety. The film shows the community that refugees forged for themselves, and how they tried to maintain their traditional ways of life throughout their displacement. The contrast between Sudan, other sub-Saharan countries and the United States is striking.

Happiness (2013)

Bhutan remained for many years as one of the world’s most underdeveloped nations. Television was first introduced in 1999 and had a big impact on the country. Happinessfollows the life of Peyangki, an 8-year-old living in a remote Himalayan village. His mother later sends him to be raised as a monk, and in an intervening break he takes the long journey to visit his sister in the nation’s capital. The film signals the end of the traditional village lifestyle, while also showing the wonder of a boy who is being shown modern technology for the first time.


A Kalahari Family (2002)

A Kalahari Family is John Marshall‘s five-part, six hour magnum opus which charts the film-maker’s 50 year engagement with the Jo-hoansi bushmen. It is one of the most well-respected films in the ethnographic field. It acts both as a chronicle of the changing lifestyles of the bushmen during globalization, Apartheid and Namibian independence as well as a detailed anthropological study of a single family and how they change over 50 years. By spending so much time with the family, Marshall creates a deeply moving piece which breaks down the myths and stereotypes of the ‘primitive bushmen’.

Love Hotel (2014)

While on the outside Japan may look like one of the most hyper-modern societies in the world, it still remains as being one of the most socially reserved. This is where the love hotel comes in, catering to single people who want to have refuge, privacy or to play out their fantasies, as well as for couples who are looking to reignite a spark in their relationship. Love Hotel gives access to the lives of a wide variety of staff and clients of the hotel and is a deeper exploration of Japan’s conservativeness.

Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North is a year in the life of an Inuit hunter and his family. Viewers are taken with Nanook as he goes about his daily life, hunting for food and travelling. It was the first ever feature-length documentary which includes elements of docudrama and is generally regarded as the predecessor to modern documentary. This was the first real instance of audiences being given such a close look at such isolated cultures, and remains a culturally and historically significant film which still enchants audiences.

Vernon, Florida (1981)

While his films are relatively modern, Errol Morris can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern documentary filmmaking. While Florida may not seem like the most culturally abstract place on earth, Vernon, Florida shows us that there are microcultures to be found everywhere. The initial concept of the film was meant to explore citizens who cut off their limbs for insurance fraud, but Morris was unable to gain the intended interviews. Instead, he created a film that is a rich tapestry of the different eccentric characters which can be found in small town USA.

Village At The End Of The World (2012)

This film puts isolation into perspective. Village At The End Of The World was shot over the course of a year in a village in northern Greenland, home to only 59 people. Villagers have to hunt and fish for their food, and for much of the year they can only be reached by helicopter. There are large stretches of the year that are spent in complete darkness or complete sunlight. For some this is paradise; for others, a dying way of life. It is a beautifulstory of a village and its residents as they fight to survive.

War/Dance (2007)

War/Dance is a beautiful and uplifting film based around dark subject matter. It follows three children living in a Ugandan displacement camp which is under military protection from the terrorist group that has been rebelling against the government for several decades. But with fear comes hope, and these children aim to compete in Kampala’s national music and dance festival. The film explores the preparation for this competition, the horrors that the residents have had to endure, and how these two elements can feed into each other.

By Sophia White


Written by How Africa

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