7 documentaries that had the greatest impact on modern culture

The 21st century is brimming with feature length documentaries that have challenged the cultural consensus. Filmmakers have examined and exposed aspects of our society through the scope of a camera lens, giving us a deeper, alternative view of the modern world.

We take a look at which of these films have had the most positive impact:

  1. Super-Size Me (2004)
Supersize me poster, photo courtesy of The Con

It comes as no shock that fast food is bad for you. Independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock famously ate nothing but McDonalds for 30 days. The impact on Spurlock’s psychological and physical wellbeing shows us the detrimental impact poor nutrition can cause and the role that fast food corporations play in promoting it. Six weeks after the release of the film, McDonalds conveniently removed supersize portions and added the option of salad.

2. Earthlings (2005)

Earthlings festival poster, photo courtesy of Nation Earth

An ever-controversial film, Earthlings is designed to shock anyone with even a passing compassion for animals. Using concealed cameras, we see the darker side of industries that rely on animals. While its disturbing imagery may be best described as a war of attrition, its exploration of speciesism in modern industry opens a worthwhile debate. Although it is not a positive film, it has had an undeniable impact on educating the public on animal rights.

3. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Former Vice-President of the USA, Al Gore. photo courtesy of Variety

The global warning that becomes more relevant as the years go by. Former Vice-President of the United States, Al Gore’s campaign to educate us on global warming has been instrumental in shaping public opinion on the environmental movement. It is a staple of climate activism and teaching in schools, with its message being one of the most important in film.

4. The Cove (2009)

The Cove, photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Perhaps the most unsettling watch on this list, this academy award winning feature presents a cruel, harsh, brutal expose of the Japanese whale and dolphin hunting season. Whilst it did not halt the practice, the unsettling scenes captured have been vital in rallying support for ocean conservation and opposition to the Japanese whaling industry.

5. Blackfish (2013)

Two Orcas in captivity at Seaworld, photo courtesy of CNN Films

Far harder hitting than simply “Free Willy” in real life, Blackfish brought awareness to the injustice of SeaWorld’s killer whale exhibits. The fact that these creatures are corralled for the entertainment of humans sparked outrage against amusement park chains. The direct impact of the film led to SeaWorld discontinuing their Orca exhibits and breeding programme. This documentary hits hard and SeaWorld are still trying to salvage their public image.

6. Citizen Four (2014)

Citizen Four poster, HBO Films

Is Edward Snowden a hero, criminal or some combination of the two? Regardless of your opinion, Laura Poitras’ following of the NSA surveillance scandal has opened up a discussion to the public to decide the lengths they feel that the arm of government should reach. It is an important showing of the complicated relationship between public and government in post 9/11 America and the extent to which liberty goes.

7. A Plastic Ocean (2016)

Turtles, photo courtesy of A Plastic Ocean

A year before Blue Planet II brought the message to the small screen, A Plastic Ocean was the ripple to start a wave of change. The Leonardo DiCaprio produced film explores the impact of mankind’s overabundance of plastic waste and the impact on the ocean’s ecosystem. The film has been screened from UN conferences to schools across the globe. Public opinion has largely shifted in recent years to deal with this issue, and A Plastic Ocean is largely to thank for that.

By Adam Ridgley

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