Let’s face it, lockdown would be a whole lot harder without Netflix keeping us entertained. And there’s been a lot to keep us occupied in 2020.
Love Is Blind and Tiger King have been the breakout hits in the ‘documentary’ category. Yet for all their binge-watching potential, they’re not exactly shows that are going to do much for your brain cells (although there is a welcome commentary on the conservation of big cats underneath all of Tiger King’s madness).
That’s not to say there aren’t documentaries on Netflix that can’t be entertaining and educational at the same time. So with lockdown giving us ample opportunity to get stuck into a couple of shows, we’ve decided to whittle Netflix’s monster documentary catalogue down to the most enlightening.
10 Of The Best Educational Documentaries On Netflix
If you’re looking to keep up with every conversation topic around the dinner table, Explained is the series for you.
Produced by the kings of service journalism, US media company Vox, each 16 to 18-minute episode takes the viewer on a whistle-stop tour of a particular subject, with a famous voice narrating us through the topic (stand-outs include Hilary Swank, Rachel McAdams, and Jerry Springer).
An episode released in November 2019 on the history and future of pandemics is a gripping watch but perhaps one best left till after the current scare. It’s the episodes on tattoos, music and beauty which are prime examples of what Explained does best though; mainly surprise and illuminate us on the everyday things we usually just take for face value.
The godfather of nature documentaries, it’s easy to forget the immense cultural impact Planet Earth had when it was first shown in 2006.
“A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet,” begins the great David Attenborough in the opening narration. “But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity. This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.
Which is basically the crux of the show. Gorgeous landscapes, wondrous creatures, and Attenborough’s elegiac timbre – the show remains the strongest argument for preserving Earth’s biodiversity ever put to film.
While recovering from an injury, UFC fighter James Wilks starts to look into the science behind nutrition to aid his recovery and performance upon his return.
What he finds goes against centuries of pro-meat marketing and the belief that meat is vital to athletic performance. Starting with the gladiators and their own vegan diets, Wilks explores the benefits of a plant-based diet while interviewing famous veggie champions like Lewis Hamilton, and the one and only, Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Abstract: The Art
A deep dive into some of the most iconic designs in contemporary culture. Created by former Wired editor-in-chief Scott Dadich, each episode of Abstract: The Art profiles a revered figure in their particular field, from artist Olafur Eliasson and his overwhelming and immersive installations to Tinker Hatfield, the designer of the celebrated Air Jordan 3 sneaker and the Oscar-winning costume designer, Ruth E. Carter.
Far from household names, each profile feels like a fresh discovery and a testament to how extraordinary creativity is cultivated through relentless passion, risk-taking, and hard graft.
Nominated for best documentary feature at the 2010 Academy Awards, Food Inc is an ugly, eye-opening, and surprisingly riveting behind-the-scenes look into what goes into our food.
Split into three segments, the first part looks at the inhumane and unsustainable industrial production of meat, before the second part continues the sustainable theme into the manufacturing processes behind grains and vegetables (primarily corn and soybeans).
The film’s final section is all about the money, mainly the major food companies who are so obsessed with it they’ll sell food contaminated with petroleum-based chemicals to keep it rolling in. The film ends on a happier note though, touching on the growing organic food boom of the 21st century and a simple call to arms: “Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect”.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
This four-part documentary series presented by chef and author of the hit cookbook, Samin Nosrat, is a vibrant, gorgeous sojourn through the four eponymous pillars of good cooking, and the countries that excel at them.
The first episode takes place in Italy, where fatty indulgence (lashings of olive oil, more mozzarella than you can shake a stick at) is par for the course. Japan, where adding salt to a dish has been turned into an art form, hosts the next trip, before Mexico, and the power of acid is put to the test by tangy salsas and splashes of lip-smacking lime.
Nosrat goes home to California for the final part – heat – melding all these culinary flavours into one. More than just foodie escapism, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a must-watch lesson for any home chef looking to develop their own cooking.
The Mars Generation
“We’ve got to the moon, but it’s only a stepping stone to The Red Planet,” says investigative journalist Annie Jacobsen near the beginning of this inspiring documentary that follows a group of teenage space camp attendees working for NASA.
This is a documentary that focuses less on our Martian future though and more on humankind’s prior exploits within space travel. Exploring our solar system in person doesn’t seem to capture the imagination among like it once did. But these teenage protagonists infectious enthusiasm for past exploits is what will take the next generation above and beyond previous cosmic conquests.
Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World
Directed and presented by German auteur Werner Herzog, this cerebral doc sets the birth of the internet as its start point. From there it feels like Herzog could go anywhere.
From online child abuse, digital nomads, and electromagnetism sensitivity, through to the dangers of artificial intelligence and Elon Musk rhapsodising about his quest to send humans to Mars – the film increasingly lacks focus as it moves through the order of events. But as a madcap spider chart on the impact the digital revolution has had on humankind, it’s an enlightening, if somewhat complicated, ride.
Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates
Philanthropist, Microsoft founder, the world’s second-richest man – we all know who Bill Gates is. But not one to be splashed across the tabloids or held up as an ineffable cult of personality like his rival Steve Jobs, there’s not really much we know besides that.
That’s where Inside Bill’s Brain comes in, relating Gates’ story from childhood to world domination, all while trying to dissect his idiosyncratic, problem-juggling mindset. But its the focus on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and their major initiatives that are the enlightening part here. From improving sewage conditions in developing countries to eradicating polio, and developing a cleaner, safer form of nuclear power – this is an education less in Bill Gates, and more in trying to make the world a better place.
Revolutions: The Ideas That Changed The World
A thorough and fascinating history lesson on the most important technological advances in humankind, this docuseries from the BBC spends each episode tracing the story behind six major inventions: the aeroplane, the car, the rocket, the smartphone, the telescope, and the robot.
The aeroplane episode is particularly interesting. From the invention of kites in ancient China and Da Vinci’s flying machine sketches through to futuristic jet suits, it shows just how far we humans have developed, and where we could go next.