5 Documentary Recommendations for Understanding the World We Live In

By Ken Wytsma

I love history–I always have!

As someone high on the intuitive side of the personality index, there is nothing more intriguing and helpful than the context and big picture that understanding and learning history provides.

In today’s age of specialization and glut of information, often history (or the deeper stories behind people and places) gets lost.

One of the best ways to take in history is watching documentaries. I’m a visual learner and a well-done documentary combines solid history with creative storytelling to convey deep truth and events in a quick and memorable fashion. In fact, now that my older daughters are able to comprehend most documentaries–we’ve kicked the documentary watching into overdrive in our house.

Below are five documentaries that I either use in my Kilns College courses or that I’ve found personally helpful in understanding the world we live in.

The 50 Years War
The Israeli / Palestinian conflict is one that dominates headlines, but few people know or understand the complex modern history of this global hotspot. This movie is unprecedented in weaving together interviews by key players and headline-markers to tell the story of one of history’s most bitter and enduring struggles. This movie goes a long way toward filling in the gaps and creating empathy for both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Fog of War

The Fog of War was, for a long time, my favorite documentary of all time. Not only is the production quality of the movie–with haunting music and amazing archival footage–first rate, but the innovative storytelling approach using former Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, as the lens for looking at history since President Kennedy. The Cold War, The Vietnam War, diplomacy, how we misunderstand our enemies, and what wisdom might look like are all explored as McNamara looks back on the lessons both of his life and the history he not only witnessed, but helped shape.

The House I Live In

Most Americans are familiar with the War On Drugs that took on steam under president Ronald Reagan. What most American’s don’t know is the human toll this war on drugs took and the often unjust scales that were used in creating today’s mass incarceration epidemic. This video captures heart-wrenching stories from individuals at all levels of America’s War on Drugs. From dealers, to mothers, to police officers, senators, judges and inmates, the film offers a deep look at our longest war and reveals its profound human rights implications.

Not for Ourselves Alone

This is one of the documentaries I show to my People’s History of Justice in the Modern Era class at Kilns College. It follows two of our century’s most celebrated women’s rights pioneers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, through their challenges and victories as they strive to give birth to the women’s movement. This is documentary filmmaking at its finest and shows a layer of American history most are unfamiliar with, but had a dramatic impact on our nation and still shapes who we are and aspire to be today. There are many films on women’s rights, but possibly none better on the birth and history of women’s rights in America.

Slavery by Another Name

This film challenges one of America’s most cherished assumptions, the belief that slavery in the U.S. ended with Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It tells the harrowing story of how in the South, a new system of involuntary servitude took its place with shocking force through peonage and convict leasing. This topic is also explored in the companion book by the same name and another recent important historical work, Worse than Slavery, by David Oshinsky. I can honestly say, that the subject of convict leasing and what it entailed has been one of the most disturbing things I’ve learned in the last half-dozen years. Watch this film!

Bonus: (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies

I recently judged this documentary for a film festival and found it fascinating. This is a departure from the historical focus of the movies listed above, but for those of you who enjoy psychology and sociology, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, will prove fascinating. The film interweaves personal stories, expert opinions, behavioral experiments, and archival footage to reveal the complicated truths about why we lie. (Spoiler alert, none of us are as honest as we think!)

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Categories: Innovation & Leadership,Justice & Culture

Ken Wytsma is a teacher, entrepreneur and author. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and president of Kilns College, as well as the author of Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things, The Grand Paradox: The Messiness of Life, the Mystery of God and the Necessity of Faith, and Create vs. Copy:Embrace Change. Ignite Creativity. Break Through with Imagination.

Theology and Culture