My Octopus Teacher (2020)
By 2010, the bluff, affable documentary-maker Craig Foster had reached the end of his tether. He had been making documentaries for 20 years. Successfully, too: he co-directed The Great Dance: A Hunter’s Story (2000), a seminal and multi-award-winning study of the indigenous San people in the Kalahari desert. Yet his usual energy had started to abandon him.
Rather than mope, Foster decided that he would dive, every day, in a cold, underwater kelp forest near his home in Cape Town, South Africa. It was on one such dive that he encountered a common octopus that was hiding from sharks. Watching behaviour so complex and mesmerising gave Foster an idea: for the next year, he visited the octopus and tracked her movements. Over time, the octopus responded, greeted him, even played with him, and so Foster began to map the common ground that exists between two wildly different forms of intelligence.
Mixing Foster’s footage with spectacular, iridescent camerawork from underwater specialist Roger Horrocks (responsible for some standout sequences in the BBC series Our Planet and Blue Planet II), My Octopus Teacher won two categories at the Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards, Best Science/Nature Documentary and Best Cinematography.
More than just another nature flick, it is a film about curiosity, play and trust. Foster’s close observation and emotional involvement lead him to make some jolly odd statements; humans and octopuses aren’t remotely like each other in any of the ways that he implies. But the film’s wider point – that sympathy and intelligence can bridge a gulf of evolutionary aeons – is much more interesting and, when you think about it, much more radical.
Night on Earth (2020)
Plimsoll Productions, the producers of documentary series Hostile Planet, recruited virtually everyone who is anyone in the wildlife film-making community to reveal, over six energetic episodes, what the wild world gets up to while we sleep. Short on detail and heavy on hyperbole – narrator Samira Wiley talks about the night as though viewers had never stayed up past 9 pm – Night on Earth is nonetheless a genuine innovation, combining daytime and night-time footage to reveal, sometimes in unnerving ways, the behaviours of even familiar species. The Zimbabwe segment filmed by series producer Bill Markham, in which hyenas and lions chase down baby elephants, is a ghastly highlight.
Made up of 60 separate shoots over one year in 30 different countries, the show does much more than fill in the gaps left by the Planet Earth crew. It was created using new models of low-light devices that film in full colour and with razor-sharp clarity by moonlight. The treetops of Argentina are lit up with infrared light to capture the nocturnal lives of owl monkeys. Night on Earth’s digital clean-up of regular night-vision footage has to be seen to be believed.
The show contains more than enough tales of daring to satisfy traditionalists. One cameraman discovered that Peruvian vampire bats, distracted from their pursuit of fur seal pups, are more than happy to snack on naturalists. Yet it isn’t all pretty pictures – along with the new kit comes a new way of thinking. An entire episode of this short series is devoted to wildlife in cities because, like it or not, that is where a lot of creatures live now – or try to.
Spaceship Earth (2020)
Hulu and Amazon Prime Video
Director Matt Wolf draws on an impressive archive of never-before-seen footage to recount the oft-told (and oft-misrepresented) tale of Biosphere 2, the pride and joy of an ambitious experimental theatre troupe from San Francisco called the Theater of All Possibilities.
The experiment, masterminded by ebullient writer and ecologist John Allen, and bankrolled by billionaire Ed Bass, involved eight people entering a giant dome in Oracle, Arizona, on 26 September 1991 and locking the door behind them, to see if they could survive in an hermetically sealed, self-designed ecosystem. They emerged two years later, somewhat wiser, certainly thinner and extremely defensive about their experiment, conceived as a spectacular means of raising environmental awareness, and now mired in financial and scientific controversy.
Biosphere 2 was a system science research project that recreated Earth’s major climates – rainforests, deserts, plains, oceans, reefs – in miniature. The programme was never a cult: it was a naive but extremely productive experiment in ecosystem design. Biosphere 2 (without its live-in crew) is still doing science under its new owner, the University of Arizona.
In our era of biohackers and citizen scientists, the first biospherians look a lot less odd to us now than they must have looked when, in 1994, (and after a second mission), the project was effectively dismantled by its new boss Steve Bannon (later Donald Trump’s chief strategist).
Kooky and delightful as Wolf’s film is, Spaceship Earth also manages to capture the seriousness of intent behind a project too often written off, then and since, as a publicity stunt.
Feels Good Man (2020)
Microsoft Store, Apple Store and BBC iPlayer
Arthur Jones’s surreal, funny and ultimately devastating film is about his friend Matt Furie’s attempts to rein in his very own errant Pinocchio, Pepe the Frog.
Pepe started life as a hand-drawn cartoon character, one of four stoner students in Boy’s Club, Furie’s MySpace comic. Because he was easy to draw, he was quickly repurposed online by other people, and started turning up in posts from disaffected stoners across the US. This hardly seemed to matter at the time, more a case of a frazzled reptile talking to his base.
But in 2014, when popstar Katy Perry featured his green grin on her Twitter feed, some of Pepe’s fans started giving him KKK hoods and Hitler moustaches in an effort to frighten off the mainstream. Extremists on social networks Reddit and 4Chan got in on the action: here was a meme they could use, “feeling good” about everything from rape to Auschwitz, and all under cover of a supposed “joke”. Not long after, presidential hopeful Donald Trump briefly adopted Pepe as his online mascot and the Anti-Defamation League added the frog to its hate symbol register.
Feels Good Man, with its goofy animations and road-tripping – Furie frantically tries to redeem his creation however possible, fan by fan if he has to – is as disorientating and terrifying as the story it sets out to tell. The Sundance Film Festival bestowed Jones with a special jury award for emerging film-makers, and Lighthouse International Film Festival gave it the prize for Best Feature-Length Documentary.
The Social Dilemma (2020)
Though it is unlikely to tell regular readers of New Scientist anything they didn’t know already, Jeff Orlowski’s docudrama is a superb piece of civic education, exploring the accidents, mistakes, good intentions and bad behaviours (both human and algorithmic) that have shaped our leading social media platforms. Orlowski, who has received Emmy awards for his ecological outings Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral, won the Impact Film Award at the Boulder International Film Festival and picked up an honourable mention at the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival for his latest work. The Social Dilemma combines shockingly candid interviews with Silicon Valley insiders with the dramatised misadventures of a social media-addicted family.
Whether the dramatic sequences entertain or irritate you will probably come down to your familiarity with the material. Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser plays an AI controlling what is implied to be Facebook – recommending ever more extreme political videos and finally even gun advertisements to lonely teen Ben (Skyler Gisondo). Kartheiser, as usual, chews up the screen. Yet the part of Ben, handsomely written and performed, brings real moral urgency to a documentary that might otherwise have tipped into familiar “corporate confession” territory – memorably defined by tech policy expert Maria Farrell as “I was lost but now I’m found, please come to my TED Talk”. Sure enough, one of the film’s main subjects is TED darling Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google who later co-founded the Center for Humane Technology.
There is no denying that an urgent injection of humanity is needed in this sector. At the moment, the only way social media platforms can make money is to change what we do, how we think and who we are to fit a client’s specifications. The Social Dilemma shows us, in painful detail, how they do it.
Into the Inferno (2016)
In 1977, film-maker Werner Herzog rushed to the evacuated Caribbean island of Guadeloupe to record the island’s looming volcanic eruption in a short film, La Soufrière. Thirty years later, while filming Encounters at the End of the World in Antarctica, he met and befriended Clive Oppenheimer, a volcanologist at the University of Cambridge. Into the Inferno brings these two experiences together, using familiarity and friendship to leaven a film that is ostensibly all about fire, disaster and looming death. No wonder it is such a good-natured and ultimately uplifting work.
Oppenheimer, who had an active role in making the film, provides the scientific context. He is particularly keen on the incomparably fierce eruption of Mount Toba in Indonesia 74,000 years ago, which some say may have almost wiped out humanity.
For all its stunning shots of erupting volcanoes, rivers of lava and pools of magma, Herzog’s film steers firmly into anthropological territory in an attempt to discover how communities in lands as different as Iceland, Ethiopia and North Korea not only survive, but thrive and find heightened meaning in living next door to death. In Vanuatu, for example, there is a legend of a supernatural US soldier called John Frum who will one day emerge from the Mount Yasur volcano on Tanna Island to spread his bounty. In North Korea, national lore has it that the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, once lived in a log cabin at the foot of an active volcano, Mount Paektu. Armies of civilians now come to worship there.
Herzog’s great theme is how people hunt for meaning in the world to the point of obsession. Volcanoes are, it turns out, an ideal subject, one he handles with dramatic flare and a lot of charm.
Unnatural Selection (2019)
According to Joe Egender, who co-created this genetic engineering series with Leeor Kaufman, Unnatural Selection began life around 2015 as a science fiction script. Over dinner, the writers realised that the material Egender was amassing was too complex for fiction – and barely believable anyway. How, they wondered, did they not already know that technologies existed that were set to transform not only their lives, but the very future of life on this planet?
Filmed between 2016 and 2018, the four-part documentary they made in response to this revelation is a breakneck tour, from malaria-ridden villages in Burkina Faso to fertility clinics in Ukraine. Unnatural Selection leads us through various forms of genetic engineering, taking in as many societal and environmental implications as there is time for.
The result isn’t exactly tidy. Without a narrator to guide us, we slide back and forth between CRISPR, gene editing, gene drives, gene therapy and genetic engineering as though they were all aspects of the same hard-to-grasp idea. One minute we are talking to Kevin Esvelt, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who wants to immunise the mice that infect ticks with Lyme disease; the next we are trying to wrap our heads around the twisted logic by which David Ishee, a Mississippi dog breeder, hopes to create green fluorescent mastiff puppies by adding green fluorescent protein-expressing E. coli to dog sperm.
Still, Unnatural Selection works very well indeed as a chronicle of the ambitions and struggles of scientists, doctors, patients, conservationists and biohackers as they seek to seize control of evolution. “The common thread between all the characters,” says Kaufman, “is that they’re in possession of tomorrow’s technology, but they’re stuck in the systems of today.”
Kiss the Ground (2020)
One thing’s for sure: film-maker and climate activist Josh Tickell knows how to cause a stir. In 1997, he drove a van powered by used cooking oil across the US, capturing the attention of the world. For the next 10 years, he promoted personal sustainability via the college lecture circuit, and his first film, the documentary Fuel, was nominated for an Oscar in 2008.
The years haven’t abated his high-octane approach. His 2017 book, Kiss the Ground, is subtitled “How the food you eat can reverse climate change, heal your body & ultimately save our world”. His new documentary is co-directed with his wife, film-maker Rebecca Harrell Tickell, and brings the book’s central claim to the screen: that soil’s capacity to sequester carbon could be the key to reversing the effects of climate change.
Of course, every one-stop solution to a problem as complex and wicked as climate change needs its tyres kicking with great thoroughness. But the Tickells’ arguments, narrated by the ever-personable actor and activist Woody Harrelson, are cogent and well-evidenced. The film marshals epic footage shot on five continents, striking visuals from NASA and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stunning animation and the opinions of leading scientists, ecologists and experts, including Nobel laureates and members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Nor is climate the be-all and end-all of this film, by any stretch. If we regenerate Earth’s soils, the film argues, we can also replenish our water supply, keep species from going extinct and better feed the world.
A message this positive and inspiring is a shoo-in for shortlists. Sure enough, Kiss the Ground has already won more than two dozen international prizes, including Best Documentary and Best Picture at the London Independent Film Awards and Best Feature Documentary at the Venice Film Awards.
Challenger: The Final Flight (2020)
On 28 January 1986, NASA’s space shuttle Challenger left Cape Canaveral in Florida on a satellite deployment mission. It was also, quite openly, a public relations flight: on board were the first African-American astronaut, Ronald McNair; first Asian astronaut, Ellison Onizuka; and teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was going to be the first private citizen in space.
Seventy-three seconds into the flight, hot gases spraying from one of the solid-fuel rocket boosters ruptured the main tank. Its bottom peeled away and massive amounts of liquid hydrogen spewed from the tank, creating a sudden forward thrust of more than 1000 tonnes. The whole assembly broke apart.
Challenger: The Final Flight pieces together archival material, news footage and interviews with relatives of the Challenger crew, as well as engineers and others involved with the space shuttle mission. The four-part series recaps the tragedy in excruciating detail, letting those closest to the disaster tell its story.
NASA had wanted to normalise the idea of space travel. Instead, it faced years of painful self-examination and reinvention. Directors Steven Leckart and Daniel Junge examine the systemic oversights that led to the Challenger disaster, and the cultural failings that saw NASA briefly toy with a cover-up.
More memorable, though, are the poignant testimonies of the crew’s families and the aching sense of opportunities lost, just as space was beginning to feel closer than ever before.
Crip Camp (2020)
Writer-producers Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2020 for their story of Camp Jened, a free-spirited, Woodstock-like summer camp in the Catskill mountains of New York state that was designed for teens with disabilities.
Many who attended the camp in the early 1970s felt that it was the first time they were seen, heard and acknowledged as individuals. At Camp Jened, no one was stigmatised or made to feel like the odd one out. “It was so funky!” writer Denise Sherer Jacobson reminisces. “But it was utopia when we were there.”
“This camp changed the world,” says LeBrecht, who was born with spina bifida and began to attend Camp Jened when he was 14.
Combining interviews with archive material and news footage, Crip Camp describes how Camp Jened’s alumni, inspired by their experiences, set about fomenting an accessibility revolution. Judy Heumann, a camp counsellor who went on to become a leader of the disability rights movement, features prominently as the film draws a convincing line from the baseball games, folk singalongs and furtive clinches at Camp Jened to the eventual signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990.
Heumann, a polio survivor who served as a special adviser at the US Department of State under then-president Barack Obama, recalls: “This camp is where we had those conversations in the bunks late at night that made us realise, hey, there’s this civil rights movement going on around us, why aren’t we a part of it?”
The Pharmacist (2020)
One meeting with middle-aged Louisiana pharmacist Dan Schneider was all it took. Then and there, directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason set about building a four-part true-crime series around Schneider’s private investigations, first into his son’s death in a drug-related shooting in 1999 and then into the more than half a million deaths from drug overdoses in the US between 2000 and 2015.
On the one hand, basing a series around Schneider was a no-brainer. Fobbed off by the authorities, to whom his son was just another addicted casualty, Schneider had launched his own investigation into the murder, recording all his calls and even his private thoughts in the hope that one day he would present his evidence at trial. Schneider was an unexpectedly tough customer, stalking the neighbourhood, bombarding strangers with phone calls and badgering a woman into testifying even though it forced her into witness protection.
Schneider wrapped up his investigation. A year later, however, he began to notice people his son’s age picking up OxyContin prescriptions. His response was to pick up his car keys and tape recorder once more. Good for him: he spotted the opioid crisis before the rest of us. Here, though, the true-crime formula struggled to encompass all the issues involved. Schneider’s son’s killer, a poor black teenager, went to jail. Purdue Pharma, whose explosive growth in OxyContin sales could only come from overconsumption, made $35 billion in cumulative revenues by 2017.
Though it ends up asking more questions than it answers, The Pharmacist deploys Schneider’s tapes and documents to gripping effect, giving it a rare immediacy.
Human Flow (2017)
Apple TV and Amazon Prime
How do you depict the plight of more than 65 million people? That is the challenge Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei set himself, and the five awards that Human Flow received at the 2017 Venice Film Festival attest to his sometimes inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking success.
Sixty-five million: this is the number of people who were forced to flee their homes around the world in 2015 because of famine, climate change and war, in the greatest human displacement since the second world war. The current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figure for displaced persons tops 79.5 million.
Filming in 23 countries over the course of a year, Ai combines epic cinematography and haunting drone footage of destroyed cityscapes and vast oceans with personal interviews and interactions, sometimes grabbed on-the-fly using his own iPhone. The result is a film that, while never losing sight of the individuals involved, still manages to encompass the scale of the tragedy: a “human flow” indeed.
Nor is the flow of people the end of it. At least movement implies hope. Ai’s film reveals, however, that the refugees’ way of life is no longer a temporary phase; it is a permanent state of being. Entire generations are being born without vaccinations, without education and without any sense of being valued. If Human Flow is a film short on solutions, it is rich in the kind of empathy we need to understand what being a migrant is like in human terms.
Planet Earth II
Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, Our Planet and Seven Worlds, One Planet
BBC iPlayer, Netflix, SkyGo
Watch the last few years’ major natural history television narrated by David Attenborough, and you will witness a remarkable change. Everyone’s favourite pre-watershed naturalist finally seems to have become angry about the state of the planet, and about our role in its decline. Planet Earth II was relatively upbeat about the state of the world, although its last few minutes contained a homily about various “problems”. Blue Planet II was more forthright, declaring a war on ocean plastics that has gathered much pace and enthusiasm since the show first aired in 2017.
Two years later, and Seven Worlds, One Planet saw storms generated by global anthropogenic climate change blow albatross chicks out of their nests. At last the Natural History Unit’s betters at the BBC had abandoned their pursuit of a specious “balance” around the climate change emergency, and were letting their filmmakers, and Attenborough, tell the unvarnished truth about the natural world – or what was left of it.
But they had been gazumped: Netflix had already recruited the same community of producers, filmmakers and naturalists to produce their own series, Our Planet. This, surely is what the BBC should have been making years ago. It is expensive, visually ravishing and absolutely unsparing in its analysis of where the world is headed.
From Amelia Earhart to Tiny Broadwick, women feature prominently in histories of pioneering aviation. And when William Randolph Lovelace invited women pilots into his privately funded research project in the early 1960s, he got the best of the best.
Lovelace was the doctor who developed the physical and psychological tests used to select candidates for space. He had no doubts that women were capable of space flight, and he wasn’t alone. Russia sent the first woman – Valentina Tereshkova – into space in 1963.
In the US, however, NASA turned to military test pilots, who were all male, for its Apollo programme. Speaking before Congress in 1962, some of Lovelace’s women argued that they were prevented from joining on sexual discrimination grounds. Their case was thrown out.
The Mercury 13 women had the right stuff, and could have have flown, and didn’t. Yet their determination to make the most of their lot is inspiring. One taught herself aerobatics. One co-founded the National Organization of Women. And several – a nice irony – went on to have successful careers as test pilots.
The trick of good documentary making is knowing when the story you set out to tell isn’t half as good as the story that just landed in your lap.
Icarus director Bryan Fogel is a keen amateur cyclist and was annoyed by the way professional racer Lance Armstrong built his career on the use of performance-enhancing substances. So Fogel decided he’d attempt to cheat his way to some trophies – and make a whistleblowing documentary about the experience.
To do this properly, Fogel needed expert help, and that’s how he fell in with Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of Russia’s anti-doping programme and, it turns out, a key player in a decades-long, state-sponsored attempt to skirt the rules.
Once this is exposed, Russia is partly banned from the 2016 Summer Olympics (and banned altogether from the 2018 Winter Olympics) and Rodchenkov, turned whistleblower, flees to the US – largely thanks to Fogel.
Fogel never did cheat his way to that cycling trophy, but I don’t imagine he’s too upset: Icarus won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Over five visually dazzling episodes, Brian Cox guides the viewer through our solar system’s 4.5-billion-year history of collisions, near misses and bizarre planetary harmonics, a dish presented on a bed of fiendish geometry, and smothered in a rich CGI sauce.
Once you get your breath back, I defy you not to rewatch The Planets immediately. The science is strong and the special effects are carefully thought through.
Our solar system’s impression of clockwork stability is an illusion. Every planet has been on an incredible journey, its fate, position and even its composition dependent on the chaotic interaction of unimaginably huge forces. Cox’s delivery is a bit over-seasoned for some tastes, but in this series I think it helps that he personifies his rocky, gassy protagonists wherever he can. Mercury, “an embryo ripped from its promising position before it could mature”, will never seem the same again.
Imagine making a 65mm motion picture cinema documentary about the first moon landing – and then giving up, and filing the whole thing in a drawer. You’d be kicking yourself now. Look what Todd Douglas Miller has made of your footage! He’s spliced it with selections from 11,000 hours of uncatalogued audio and reams more restored original film to make Apollo 11. Running at just one and a half hours in length, this is easily the richest human document ever made of our first extra-terrestrial adventure.
How did Miller do it? For a start, he trusted his sources. If he found a spectacular or informative shot, he’d let it run at length. If an astronaut or someone in the control centre had something useful to say, he’d let them say it, without interruption, without narration, without false drama.
That still gave him plenty to do. Editing together shots of the spectators at the rocket’s launch, he assembles a snapshot of 1960’s America that is at once intimate and epic. Matt Morton’s thumping electronic score, constructed on a period Moog synthesizer, holds everything together: the music is an actor in the unfolding drama, for sure, but it never feels tacked on. The film was nominated for five Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards.
The Ivory Game
Earth League International and its founder Andrea Crosta are the hero-detectives of this true-life thriller, which follows the trade in elephant tusks from Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia to Hong Kong, Vietnam and China.
Directors Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani have a penchant for drone shots of 4X4s speeding across a flat landscape. (Ladkani included several similar shots in one of our favourite documentaries of 2019, Sea of Shadows.)
In the five years before 2016, 150,000 elephants were killed for their ivory. At the same time, the likelihood of the elephants’ extinction was driving up the price of their ivory, increasing the threat to the remaining herds.
Since the film was released, there has been a little bit of good news. China banned the ivory trade at the end of 2017, and polls suggest Chinese citizens are losing interest in ivory, both as a traditional medicine and as a luxury good. Still, the elephants are far from safe, and this urgent, articulate film remains as topical as ever.
How much do you want to know about your baby? Netflix’s expensive, gripping delightful documentary series follows 15 families from around the world through the first full year of their new baby’s life. It packs in solid science along with all that adorable gurgling and bouncing. Each episode follows a different part of the process, such as bonding, food, sleep and speech.
Take Your Pills
Amphetamine was first sold to the public in 1932, in the form of a decongestant inhaler. Five years later, Time magazine was already warning that students were using “pep pills” to get them through their coursework. Things are now far more advanced.
From schools to workplaces, people seem to be turning to pills to give them an edge. Director Alison Klayman isn’t bothered about the drugs themselves, however, so much as what they say about a society in which success is so hard to come by that drug-taking has become a career choice.
Working back from the death of the SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s BAFTA-nominated documentary tells the story of Tilikum, a 5500-kilogram bull orca apparently badly affected by life as a marine-park attraction.
In the wild, there are no recorded cases of orcas killing people, but Tilikum has killed three. The more we learn about the complex social lives of these creatures, the more we come to appreciate how much we have still to learn. We certainly shouldn’t be keeping them in solitary confinement.
Blackfish has been watched over 60 million times, sparking the current trend in investigative nature documentaries. It remains one of the best, and darkest, of its genre. It was nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.
Article amended on
18 May 2020
We have removed an incorrect attribution in the description of Babies.
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