One of the great pleasures of the Internet is discovering old documentaries. While there are many rabbit holes to drop into, Open Culture’s list of 265 free documentaries is a wonderfully curated excursion to educate and entertain yourself. As that’s a rather vast list, below are ten worth watching. Of course, this is a personal list aligned with topics I write about on this site. Check out the full entry to satisfy personal tastes.
Atheism: A History of Disbelief
British theater and opera director Jonathan Miller thought seriously about monotheism after 9/11. Dismayed by the atrocity that occurred under the name of religion, this three-part BBC series, first broadcast in 2004, traces disbelief from the time of classical Greek and Roman skeptics up to the present day. Interestingly, this series aired in America on PBS in 2007 with the word ‘atheism’ removed. Regardless, Miller calls it for what it is.
Beat This! A Hip-Hop History
While hip-hop documentaries will likely be made for centuries, this 1984 BBC film about the burgeoning culture is an incredible time capsule. The story of the poetic stylings of ingenious lyricists on Bronx street corners, borrowed from Jamaican sound systems and toasters (reggae emcees), has already been told and retold too many times to recount. Watching it unfold as it happened is another story altogether.
There’s a sentiment that as California goes, so does the nation. (It’s also been said about New York City and Texas, depending on context.) When it comes to health fads, this is certainly true. Yet it’s also the case that crazy ideologies emerge here. This trend continues in the recent fight against trace amounts of acrylamide in coffee, which caused one judge to rule that the bean must include a cancer warning. Instead of wasting more ink on this ridiculous legislation, why not watch this three-part 2007 documentary on one of the planet’s great gifts?
One of the greatest acts of foresight to come out of the eighties is William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a futuristic mythology about a downtrodden hacker fighting A.I. Gibson is featured in this 1990 documentary about the genre he became king of. The film is a deep dive on the influence of science fiction on the emerging computer technologies of the era.
Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision
The beginning and end of this documentary feature different titles, which is what you’d expect when the subject matter is Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman. While there have been many more recent documentaries detailing the psychedelic and lurid journey of the famed writer, this 1978 film offers the source material to check out. An excellent landmark in the Gonzo’s storied career.
Haruki Murakami: In Search of This Elusive Writer
Upon reading the first few pages of Kafka on the Shore I had no idea why Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami had amassed such a loyal fanbase. His simple style didn’t seem to warrant such accolades. I never put down that book, nor have I put down any other novel he’s written, at least not until I’m done reading. He sucks you into his worlds and doesn’t let go. Plus, every book always includes, in some form, cats and jazz or classical music.
The renaissance in psychedelics is timely—recent clinical trials have shown that this class of substances aids in addiction recovery, depression, anxiety, and existential distress. This 2002 documentary traces LSD’s mind-boggling trajectory from a Swiss scientist’s intuition to the Nixon administration’s war against drugs to the underground spiritual market.
Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
I hadn’t known about the Salton Sea until moving to Los Angeles in 2011, but this body of water is the stuff of local lore: a former Navy training base turned upscale resort in the fifties, at least until agricultural runoff made the lake, which is located in the Coachella Valley (not far from Indio), a toxic dump. This documentary, narrated by John Waters, treats the region in the only manner it can, at the intersection of comedy and tragedy.
The Church of Saint Coltrane
I’m not sure when I discovered that there’s an honest-to-goodness church dedicated to John Coltrane’s music in San Francisco, but at that moment I realized there might exist a house of worship I could attend. Trane had his spiritual awakening during A Love Supreme; Bishop Franzo King and his wife, Reverend Mother Marina King, had theirs in 1971 when opening this church’s doors. This is truly a religion we can all believe in.
This is Marshall McLuhan: The Medium is the Message
As technologies progress, I find myself constantly returning to Understanding Media. McLuhan just seems more prescient with each passing year and every new device. This 1967 documentary was produced the same year as his book, The Medium is the Message. Watching him explain the theories in real time gives you a deeper appreciation of what he saw, and where we are now.
Here’s Ezra Edelman, director of the Oscar-winning documentary OJ: Made in America (2016), on what it took to make that film: