Serious Documentaries and Topics
by Kristin Battestella
These sophisticated, philosophical, and historical series and documentaries aren't for younger audiences per se or casual viewing chill, yet they provide plenty of emotion, analysis, and food for thought for inquisitive viewers.
9/10:The Final Hours – Like millions of others near and far, I saw the terrible terrorist events live on September 11, 2001 and like many I'm sure, I have expressly avoided watching films, documentaries, anniversaries programs, and shows that have returned to that fateful footage. I know it's almost twenty years on, but for me it's still just too soon. Every day at least twice a day there is a chance I'll stop and think about that day again if I happen to see the clock strike a somber 9:11. So I surprised myself when up sick at two a.m. one night I found myself pressing play on this 2014 National Geographic two hour special. Deep down I know I did so for one reason: I don't remember what life was like before 9/11 anymore. Relatable, tender interviews with staff from the Window on the World restaurant once at the top of the World Trade Center, business associates from Canter Fitzgerald tenants, network news anchors, politicians, New York artists, and more eyewitnesses recreate the normalcy of life then before twenty-four hours news tickers when Chandra Levy was the big story. Still photographs and raw camera footage set off the onscreen text while the slow, measured pace counts down that innocuous but stormy and eerie Monday framing the business meetings, family dinners, and memories of living and working on top of the world before the subsequent sunny morning begat billows of smoke and fire. They cried, I cried, anyone who sees this will cry, and I'm sorry I didn't take many review notes but the narrative speaks for itself. Rather than being a sensationalized conspiracy account or an action packed fictional re-creation, this documentary remains a cathartic viewing experience in which audiences can share – whether you are old enough to recall when we did live in a different world all those years ago or not.
Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy – This twenty-four episode lecture from the Great Courses Series uses popular science fiction films, fiction, and shows for fresh perspectives on contemporary philosophy. From Inception defining music and art to The Matrix and knowledge versus free will, ignorance is bliss and the moral consequences of Philip K. Dick and The Adjustment Bureau debate fate and the appearance of choice. Carl Sagan's science and Plato's religion meet at predestination as the irrationality of conspiracy theories and UFOs are discussed honestly without mocking the viewer thanks to Star Wars and 2001. There are exceptions to every rule with time travel, Quantum Leap, wormholes, parallel universes, and Sliders. Memories and personal identity can be twisted like The Prestige, and self awareness, clones, and minds versus machines are debated alongside John Locke, artificial intelligence, and who or what has a soul in Westworld. Predictions of the future and Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics paved the way for today's A.I. as well as our fear of robots overlords a a la Skynet and Battlestar Galactica. Blade Runner and Black Mirror parallels question cyborgs, living in a computer simulation, George Orwell, and the social influence on the self. Why do we want to be perceived a certain way rather than as we really are when knowledge should outweigh the opinion of the masses at our fingertips? People voluntarily give up privacy by consenting to overshare – mirroring the slave and master morality of Nietzche, gaslighting, and Palpatine. Is the Rebellion really just scheming terrorists against a lawfully elected official, and yes, what about those innocent independent contractors working on The Death Star? Democracy and government are better than anarchy, war, violence, The Dark Side, and fascism, and the too close to home satire of Starship Troopers leads to gung-ho pro-militarism and actions causing what we sought to prevent. Despite the Prime Directive to not interfere, our superior Captain Kirk plays fast and loose on which savage societies need his godly intervention – and the unintended consequences. It may not be easy to watch all the referenced programs in between the episodes here, however the tent pole SF provides enough information alongside historical quotes and lesser known parallels. I confess, model props of the Liberator and commentary on rebellion versus politics with my absolute favorite show Blake's 7 makes Professor David Kyle Johnson of King's College my new BFF. While not political outright, this pop culture meets genre philosophy is extremely timely as a mirror to nature on why people are saying and behaving as they are in our current administration. Fortunately, viewers can pick and choose episodes or topics for the classroom or per interest, as the analysis here is fascinating and friendly without being over the top or pretentious.
Ancient Civilizations of North America, Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed, and Lost Worlds of South America – These three twenty-four episode lecture series from the Great Course Signature Collection educate one and all on everything you ever wanted to know about the ancient Americas – from Olmecs, Pueblos, Inca, Maya, and Mississippi Mound builders to astronomy, mathematics, intercontinental trade routes, architecture, and archaeological evidence beyond the famous long count calendar. Professor Edwin Barnhart of the Maya Exploration Center explains complex mythologies, artwork, rituals, timelines, and maps without talking down to audience, breaking down each culture's agriculture, hierarchies, and sports with graphics, onscreen notations, photos, and even on location experiences. Doctor Barnhart doesn't shy away from what is known or unknown – sharing all sides of the questions, controversies, and his own theories when disagreeing with established archaeology. New discoveries change the accepted but not necessarily accurate dating methods, and it's important to ask why ancient civilizations did what they did and how do we know for sure? Tender and taboo subject matters such as slavery, war, disease, massacres, and tragedies are handled with honesty and respect alongside a pronounced effort to use proper Mesoamerican and First Nation terminology. The history and science here help dispel lingering myths from the Anasazi to Machu Picchu and banishes the notion that all these cultures are gone – because their descendants are still here with plenty of haplogroup proof. Trade routes and material evidence reveal a fascinating bigger picture with items from South America going to Mesoamerica before trading with the American South West in more cross continental contact then we thought was possible several thousand years ago. Even as an adult far removed from long term academia, I found these series captivating and informative thanks to the chronological format with room for spotlight lectures and provocative possibilities. Just because there's an absence of evidence doesn't mean it wasn't there. These lectures are great for a learned scholar digging deeper or the younger classroom looking for a supplemental focus. This is an informative and entertaining trilogy both easy to marathon because you want to learn more but also super pause worthy as you're inspired to look up the resources and read more.
A Lighthearted Alternative
All About Cats – This two hour documentary found under numerous titles seems to be a composite block consisting of Joanna Lumley's (Absolutely Fabulous) intimate Catwoman special tossed together with an older, more generic piece on feline science. Despite the inexplicable juxtaposition in tone, jumpy camerawork, uneven on location sound, and a meandering rather than chronological pace, the peculiar personality here is evident thanks to our beloved but revered and feared four legged friends. From past worship in Thebes and adoration in Ancient Mexico to black cat superstitions and burning festivals – feline goddesses, shape shifting mythology, and divisive cat attitudes are explored. Artifacts in Cairo, Great Pyramid tours, and Maya Temples tie human history into the cat narrative before jaguar legends and a night time jungle quest to see the elusive big cats. Whimsical music matches the modern cat shows, contemporary bling, and Chicago cat circus alongside detailed but no less fun anatomy, x-rays, and jumping analysis. Primarily used for hunting and pest control over the centuries, one often wonders why such solitary predators ever moved in to this relatively recent, unneeded partnership with people in the first place. Cats may do tricks, rings bells, or catch balls if the reward suits them, however, the spoiled rotten often choose not to do so. Fortunately amid our pet cams and fur salons, cats can be trained for programs with disabled children or as therapy animals. The comforting, purring, and soft predator sitting in your lap has been proven to lower blood pressure, and new technologies let us experience cat senses such as unique whisker sensitivity and vision that's six times more sensitive to light than humans. This isn't all fluff though – serious questions on the rights and wrongs of modern breeding, cat varieties, crossbred mutations, and declawing methods are also presented alongside the pros and cons of captivity, forest preserve tours, and a look inside Tippi Hedron's (The Birds) big cat refuge with lions, ligers, and leopards rescued from questionable black market trading, cat hoarding, and more human irresponsibility. Up close, hands on big cat conservation work with cheetahs in Namibia and playing with six week old kittens reiterate how similar but different wild versus domestic cats are – and how it is a privilege to associate with both. Unusual presentation hodgepodge aside, these documentaries are tender, respectful, informative, and friendly for the whole family.
More Great Courses programs I and my family have watched but was too caught up in enjoying the subject and researching alongside the viewing to take proper review notes yet indubitably recommend include:
Big History of Civilizations
The Celtic World
Cities of the Ancient World
Introduction to Botany
Medical School for Everyone
Remarkable Science of Ancient Astronomy