1. Encounters at the End of the World
Though set in Antarctica, this is not a film about “fluffy penguins,” filmmaker Werner Herzog narrates. Werner visits McMurdo Station, headquarters of the National Science Foundation and home to about 1,000 people during the austral summer when there’s 24-hour daylight. Here, we meet the marine biologists, geologists and even truck drivers chasing their dreams on this continent at the end of the world. There’s a deep-sea diver who imagines he’s shrunk to the size of microscopic animals he studies and a computer expert who contorts her body to fit in a carry-on suitcase. All of this is set amidst an infinite white landscape and sublime underwater scenes.
2. Tawai: A Voice from the Forest
Tawai is the word nomadic hunter-gatherers from Borneo use to describe their connection to the forest. In this documentary, former British Royal Marine-turned-filmmaker Bruce Parry travels to remote indigenous communities from the Amazon rainforest to the River Ganges and learns about the bond different societies form with nature. The sense of awe Parry feels towards the perpetually mist-covered forests and winding rivers is palpable, though there is a dark undercurrent to the narrative. In Borneo, for instance, palm oil plantation owners threaten the hunter-gatherers’ lifestyle.
Though drone shots are common today, when it debuted in 2009, Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand was the first documentary to use aerial-only footage. Shot in 54 countries, it juxtaposes the beautiful diversity of life on earth with horrific scenes showing how human actions and climate change have negatively affected the planet. It’s a haunting tale of what is lost in the quest for progress and modernity. Originally in French, Glenn Close does the English narration.
Some of the most profound documentaries have the simplest names. In Mountain, Australian filmmaker Jennifer Peedom transports us to high, perilous snow-capped peaks around the world and critiques our yearning to scale them. Up until a few hundred years ago, mountains were associated with danger rather than awe, then came the age of imperialism and with it, a need to chart every corner of a map. Peedom documents this evolution, from the early days of mountaineering to extreme sports where ego and mastery replace humility and mystery.
5. Street Food
From the makers of Chef’s Table, this Netflix series shows another side of what it means to be a chef. These are not narratives of trying to make it big, but of simply trying to make ends meet. The series spans Singapore and Bangkok, Seoul and Osaka and in each episode, we learn the stories of street food vendors – many of whom are women and elderly – and the motivations behind what they do, whether it’s supporting a family or keeping an age-old tradition alive. Plus, the salivating scenes of takoyaki, goat stew, chili crab and other delicacies are enough to inspire viewers to travel.
6. Our Planet
Cue the waddling penguins and furry orangutans – animals are the star of this documentary series about how climate change affects all living creatures and their habitats. It includes impressive footage of gargantuan animals such as humpback whales and microscopic ones including leafcutter ants. We’re shown footage of Madagascan mongoose then told that their forest has been destroyed. But it’s not all doom and gloom as the series also films cheetahs living happily in the Serengeti, which for decades, has been a protected national park.
7. Pedal the World
One man and his bike conquer 11,200 miles and 22 countries in one year in this self-filmed documentary. German-born Felix Starck wanted to see the world, but not in typical backpacker fashion and he thought the bike to be both environmental and economical. Starck shows how this unusual mode of transportation is another way of experiencing new places without the protective glass of a car window. Starck crosses countries such as Serbia, Turkey and Cambodia in heavy rains and extreme heat. At one point, he gets robbed, but he also encounters acts of generosity by strangers.
8. The Kindness Diaries
Rich guy in disguise learns to live humbly – it’s a familiar reality TV trope but The Kindness Diaries makes it work. Former London stockbroker Leon Logothetis travels across North America, Europe and Asia on a vintage motorcycle and with no money, having to rely on strangers for food and shelter. In return, he pays it forward with acts of kindness, for instance, helping to build schools for underprivileged children and saving stray dogs.
9. Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown
The late Anthony Bourdain needs no introduction. The intrepid food critic known for his acerbic wit had travelled to almost 100 countries, and for this show, he visited more than 60. What makes Parts Unknown so scrumptious is the way Bourdain ingratiates himself with locals, seeks out the tastiest pounded yams and ficatolla and provides frank commentary on food and the social and cultural nuances that surround it. Some of his best episodes include eating pho with former US President Barack Obama in a small noodle shop in Hanoi and his last episode in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which is, in sorts, a walk down memory lane.
10. Tales by Light
This National Geographic series follows photographers on assignments to shoot submerged WWII planes off the coast of Papua New Guinea and Buddhist monasteries in the Himalayas. The subjects range from landscapes and underwater to cultural and ethnographic. Perhaps the most harrowing episode is shot in Bangladeshi factories that employ child workers. We learn about what drives these photographers and the adventures and risks it takes to get their million-dollar shots.