Documentaries and docuseries can provide a glimpse into another’s world, and make you feel as though you are immersed in their same environment for a while. In a time like this, during the COVID-19 pandemic, escaping into a wealth of knowledge and the richness of lived experiences can serve as a great reminder of what exists beyond our own individual lives, and show us the stories that aren’t shared in mainstream everyday media. Listening to the raw stories of different experiences of those living on the same planet can show us the far reach of human potential through a film like “Olga,” or can ground humanity with the unfiltered tale of “The White Helmets,” and everything in between. As someone who has felt drawn to documentaries since I was as young as I can remember, I have acquired quite an extensive list of recommendations. They have changed my mindset, opened portals of curiosity, and some have dramatically changed how I live my life. Here are just 10 of my favorites to add to your quarantine to-watch list!
“Olga” is a short documentary about an elite Olympic-level Russian rhythmic gymnast turned dancer. It is a short watch, standing at just 11 minutes, but it is a powerful film nonetheless. From being sent away to a training camp at the age of six, to surviving a kidnap, to becoming a leading industry dancer and choreographer, Olga Sokolova has a contagious level of inspiration and resilience. I might be biased since I was one of her first American students, but even so, I can objectively proclaim that this is a story worth watching. The film can be found here on Vimeo.
If you haven’t yet heard about “Cheer,” now you have! This Netflix original docuseries takes viewers through Navarro College’s competitive cheer program as the team prepares to battle for their title at the National Cheerleaders Association Nationals in Daytona Beach, Florida. While, in the past, cheerleading has been promoted as a sport that involves weightless cheers and is simply a sideline activity at football games, the close knit Navarro team members prove it is so much more than that. If you are like me a month ago and are hesitant to start the series — trust me — it gets good. There’s a reason why my coworkers, classmates, and friends are all still obsessing over it.
This six-season, 30-episode Netflix docuseries is an art of its own. Each episode features a different top-tier chef within their cuisine, and takes a deep dive into the inspiration behind their culinary creations, with Season 4 exclusively focusing on the world of pastry. The drop-dead gorgeous cinematography alone is one reason to watch, but even more than that, “Chef’s Table” is bound to implore you to appreciate the details of food these professionals think about every moment of their day. By the end of your binge, you will feel as though you are qualified to be a restaurateur and food critic in your own city.
“Love and Bananas”
Unlike many wildlife documentaries that seem to drag on and reinforce how us humans are killing our own planet, “Love and Bananas” will leave you feeling hopeful and informed. Ashley Bell originally planned for a short trip to Thailand and Cambodia to meet Lek Clark, an elephant activist who Time Magazine named “Hero of Asia,” to shadow an elephant rescue. The trip turned into much more than that though, and the result earned a 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I attended a screening and Q&A with Ashley in 2018, and this documentary still remains in the front of my mind. You can find it here on YouTube, as well as on Amazon Prime Video and Google Play.
“The White Helmets”
With a shaky camera, this film follows “The White Helmets,” as they call themselves, a volunteer rescue team of the Syrian Civil Defence that work and train across Syria and Turkey, saving lives in the wake of violence. If you still need a push to go ahead and watch, this doc took home Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 2017 Oscars. It is waiting for you on Netflix!
“Finding Vivian Maier”
In my freshman photography class, my TA introduced me to the work of Vivian Maier, a New York nanny disguised as a French mystery lady. I only became more deeply intrigued when I watched this documentary about the accidental discovery of Vivian’s street photography after art collector John Maloof won a box of her negatives. This film is the investigation of Vivian’s life behind her Rolleiflex camera lens, and it is so intriguing that you forget to eat. Netflix would make me a happier subscriber if they added it back to their collection, but, in the meantime, go watch it on Amazon.
“Three Identical Strangers”
This story reaches so far beyond crazy, and then only gets crazier. I had to remind myself only about 100 times that I was watching a documentary, and not some fiction film by a writer with a bold imagination. But alas, this story is indeed very real. It all started when Robert “Bobby” Shafran moved into his college dorm and students mistook him for his soon-to-be-discovered identical twin brother, Eddy, who attended the same school the year before. The third unknown triplet was identified and reunited when the story of the two brothers hit all major media outlets. The film explores the reason behind the triplet’s separation, an evil-minded adoption agency, and their unknowing partnership with a nature versus nurture project. An assistant researcher and fellow La Jollan who was involved, Natasha Josefowitz, is even connected to UC San Diego and was honored by the UCSD Health Sciences department in 2018. Snuggle up with your dog, some popcorn, and find it here on Amazon.
“My Last Days”
This docuseries produced by “Jane the Virgin’s” Justin Baldoni has millions of hits both on the internet and in the heart. Each episode tells the story of a person who is terminally ill and documents how they choose to live the remainder of their life, ranging from several years to just a couple weeks. Zach, Claire, Anthony, Miranda, and others have an outlook on life that people with a longer lasting clock have likely never considered. If you need a mindset reboot, I’ve got your back. Search for “My Last Days” on SoulPancake’s YouTube channel.
“Fire In Paradise”
The intimate interviews in this documentary are what make time stop and your jaw drop. While the record-breaking Paradise “Camp Fire” unfolded in the fall of 2018, I found myself wondering whether the individual stories of those who survived would be later told on camera. This film was the answer to my question. The way in which this account of Nov. 8, when the fire started, is packaged in a beautiful way to honor the people who didn’t make it as well as those who did but who now live with the trauma. Stop reading and go find it on Netflix.
“Knock Down The House”
Who knew that U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, aka “AOC”, would become a three-lettered household name? This documentary crew somehow smelled her future win even though the odds weren’t in AOC’s favor when they began filming her grassroots campaign. After all, she had a single nomination, which was from her brother. This film shows her unlikely journey to the seat of New York’s 14th Congressional District in 2018. Regardless of your political stance, the power of persistence and lived experience and the demonstration of the quote “you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take” is revealed strongly in this original Netflix documentary.
Art by Anthony Tran