These extremely fascinating docs are the antidote to another episode of Planet Earth
After a quick puff-puff-pass it’s easy to be stuck for something to watch while you’re metaphorically glued to the cushions of your couch. Do you scroll endlessly through Netflix until you eventually settle on a rewatch of Planet Earth? Or do you struggle to type in “near misses & close calls compilation” into the YouTube search bar between mouthfuls of ice cream? Then it’s time to shake things up. All of these documentaries are hypnotising, all are on YouTube, and all will likely blow your mind in one way or another. Some are shorter, little snippets into a person’s profession; some are exposés and will tap into your fears or show you exactly why you should never steal a phone. And some are intellectual portraits of humanity as a whole, taking stock of how far we’ve come. So light up, and hit play.
ALONE IN THE WILDERNESS (2004)
At just under 10 minutes, this short documentary follows a man as he builds a log house in the late 1960s. That’s basically all you need to know. Originally airing on PBS as a TV movie in 2004, the doc is about famous naturalist Richard Proenneke, who lived alone for almost 30 years in the backwoods of Alaska. It will bring you back to a simpler time and may even spark hazy discussions about finally making the move to live off grid. The stuff that he accomplishes in the amount of time it takes to check up on your Instagram feed will make you feel ashamed. “First thing I did was cut a few cords of wood and hauled it all back to the cabin, then I carved a door lock to keep out the bears, then I finished the window sills and weeded the garden and planted some tomatoes/onions/potatoes, took a hike up the mountain and found some berries so I picked the good ones, did a spot of fishing… Then I had breakfast.”
Speaking of off the grid, architect Michael Reynolds began to build “earthships” in the 1970s – homes that could self-sustain if the apocalypse were ever to arrive. And now that the Larsen C ice shelf has broken free from Antarctica, 1 trillion tonnes of sheer ice floating around our boiling seas, it’s probably only a matter of time before we’ll all be knocking on Reynolds’ door. “The state of New Mexico gave us two acres to do any kind of experimental architecture we wanted to,” he explains at the outset of the 40-minute film. All in all, there are about 70 homes built to be self-sustaining, using a mixture of rainwater, solar and wind power to ensure a future – for what he calls the Greater World Community, at least.
AN OPEN SECRET (2014)
Hollywood is rampant with paedophiles – but you probably already knew that. It’s the open secret part of An Open Secret, a seriously disturbing exposé of how young actors are exploited by those in positions to make or break their careers. Directed by Amy J. Berg – the woman behind Deliver Us From Evil (2006) about the Roman Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals – An Open Secret follows five former child actors who tell their stories of being manipulated and abused by producers and Hollywood elites. The documentary became a source of controversy after one of its subjects, Michael Egan III, filed lawsuits against X-Men director Bryan Singer, veteran TV executive Garth Ancier, former Disney exec David Neuman and producer Gary Goddard. (He later pulled the lawsuits and was told off by a judge for lying in court). Regardless, Berg’s film led to The Goonies Corey Feldman opening up about his and Corey Haim’s experience as child actors in The Two Coreys, under the thumb of lecherous execs. You’ll never see Hollywood the same way after watching this.
FIND MY PHONE (2016)
His phone was stolen once, and knowing it might happen again, 23-year-old Dutch director (a film student at the time) Anthony van der Meer installed spyware to see the “second life” his phone would live after it was looted by thieves. He was convinced his first phone was stolen by a professional, so he used some tech wizardry to trace its arc once it happened again. Would it be resold? Given away? Or just used to dial sex hotlines? “After my phone got stolen, I quickly realized just how much of my personal information and data the thief had instantly obtained,” the director wrote in the YouTube description. “So, I let another phone get stolen. This time my phone was pre-programmed with spyware so I could keep tabs on the thief in order to get to know him. However, to what extent is it possible to truly get to know someone by going through the content of their phone?” The story has a fascinating ending that will hopefully act as a deterrent for phone thieves everywhere.
ALL WATCHED OVER BY MACHINES OF LOVING GRACE (2011)
The rise and rise of machines, by documentarian Adam Curtis, is an eternally fascinating documentary that explores how we became a society reliant on gadgets. Annoyingly, it’s sped up and sub-titled on YouTube, but can be found on Vimeo. It’s an episodic series created by Curtis for the BBC, and over three hour-long episodes, traces how humans haven’t, in fact, been liberated by the power of computers. Based on the Richard Brautigan poem of the same name, it dismantles the idea of a technological utopia and explains how Ayn Rand’s theory of objectivism – popularlized through her novel Atlas Shrugged – informed capitalists like Alan Greenspan. If you’re high and don’t understand any of this, the film may wash over you, but it deserves a watch nonetheless for Curtis’ magical powers of editing together cohesive arguments about lofty subjects in a mind-bending, digestible way.