3 Documentaries That Will Change Your Life

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It's awards season, which means we've been hit over the head with talk of the same movies ad nauseum for months. There's only so much you can discuss the wigs of American Hustle. So let's take a break from all of that and talk about the most under-appreciated film category, the documentary. Here are a few that changed the lives of some KQED Pop writers this year.

Jeremy Scahill's Oscar nominated documentary Dirty Wars, directed by Rick Rowly, will be at The Castro Theatre tonight at 5:05pm and 9:30pm. Based on Scahill's book by the same name, this film is smart, brave, profoundly empathetic and utterly devastating. Scahill, an investigative journalist known for his reporting for The Nation and his book Blackwater: The Rise and Fall of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army, is willing to travel places few (or no) other journalist will go, and the resulting information is the brutal and shocking truth you wish wasn't really true. He talks to Somalian warlords funded by the United States government, the father of a U.S. citizen killed in a drone strike, and an anonymous informant from the Joint Special Operations Command, painting a horrifying portrait of the covert wars happening all over the world, not just in the places where we think they are.

Dirty Wars has already won the Cinematography Award at Sundance, and I can see why; it has the compelling artistry often designated for fiction, and the writing has none of the cheesy voice-over that sometimes takes down even the best of documentaries. Scahill is clearly ferocious (in a good way), committed and just a little bit reckless. Next up, he is rumored to be working with Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitrus on a new project funded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and he can be found tweeting with Teju Cole hereDirty Wars is also streaming on Netflix, so you have no excuse to miss it. --Laura Schadler

Last night, while surfing through the endless amount of reality/non-HBO television, I happened upon a documentary titled Blood Brother, the ninth episode in (coincidentally!) PBS's Independent Lens series. I read the premise quickly and the main subject was a graphic designer, Rocky Braat, who moves to India to care for children and women affected by HIV. I had never heard of this film and went into it with no expectations, thinking I might even just turn the channel. And then the story unfolded and it turned out to be one of the most compelling and inspirational things I've seen on television perhaps in my 30 years on Earth.


In a nutshell, Rocky leaves America for India and becomes part of a small village in Chennai. The children look up to him as they might a big brother. He cares for them and they care for him. One might read this and think of it as another tale of a First World-er attempting to fix the Third, but this is not one of those tales. Rocky is a young man whose heart is so full and so genuine that he will have you questioning and redefining love and what it means to be human. So much more than a film like Her ever could.

We've heard time and time again how television can rot your brain and it's better to pick up a book, but if you find the right shows, or in this case stumble upon them, they can really have an effect on your life. I have a feeling Rocky and the women and children will linger with me for some time and perhaps (hopefully) even encourage me to take some kind of action with some part of my life. It's not just the power of a story, it's the power of a pure story. Blood Brother will humble you in the sort of way that not much else can. (Blood Brother is playing on KQED Life tonight (January 21, 2014) at 9pm.) --David Aloi

Documentaries have taught me a lot through the years. Grey Gardens taught me to own my eccentricities and to have as many cats as I want. Man on Wire taught me to never take my eye off my dream. The Times of Harvey Milk taught me to speak up. And Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry taught me never to shut up. It had been a while since I had an Oprah a-ha moment because of a documentary. That all changed when I saw Blackfish.

The film by director Gabriela Cowperthwaite tells the story of an orca named Tilikum who has killed several trainers due to the stressful conditions of living in captivity at SeaWorld. We learn about whales as a species, how intelligent they are and how intricate their relationships with each other can be. And it asks the question, why is our desire to gawk at these majestic creatures more important than their well-being, and what happens to these animals after we've been splashed and taken our photos and left the theme park? The answers are difficult to hear. But it's essential that we do. It'll make you want to help change the way we treat animals...and even photoshop yourself freeing them. --Emmanuel Hapsis