Let’s face it, the lockdowns of the past two years would have been a whole lot harder without Netflix keeping us entertained. And there’s been a lot to keep us occupied in recent times.
The Last Dance 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 Of Design
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.
One of the most talked-about shows of 2021, Seaspiracy is made by the team behind the equally lionized 2014 film Cowspiracy. Set in a similar, investigative style, Seaspiracy concerns itself not with the agriculture on land, but that going on in our oceans (also known as aquaculture), taking a critical magnifying glass to the fishing industry and the unrepentant destruction — ghost nets, overfishing, whaling, dolphin hunts, modern slavery — that is destroying oceans and lives.
The conclusion is a rejection of the idea of sustainable fishing, and instead, an advocation for marine reserves to protect what we have left of the ocean’s delicate ecosystem
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.
Only a fool would dismiss the lessons the past can teach us. And even if you are a fool, you won’t be after watching these 10 information-packed episodes which use infographics and archival footage to guide us through the scientific breakthroughs (plastic, nuclear power), social movements (feminism), geo-political situations (the space race, the rise of China), and all-consuming, unremitting industries (fast food) that have gotten us to this point in time.
Pretty much solely focused on the 20th century, there’s surely a new tidbit of information for everyone to glean here, even if you lived through most of it.
Headspace Guide To Sleep
The widely used Headspace app has become ubiquitous in the world of modern mindfulness. Adding to its never-ending stream of content is a team-up with Netflix, which first resulted in the Headspace Guide To Meditation, before leading to this eye-opening, or rather eye-closing, ride through the thing we spend a third of our life doing — sleeping.
Each of the eight, 20-minute episodes tackles either an aspect that might be causing you sleep trouble — iPhone we’re looking at you — or a dissection on one of its main facets (an episode on the weird world of dreams fascinates). It’s all neatly animated and soothingly narrated, offering something that won’t just enhance your understanding of sleep, it might very well induce it too.
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.
Black Holes: The Edge Of All We Know
The phrase stranger than fiction — or should that be science fiction — was never more apt than summarising this deep space exploration into the most incredible phenomenon of them all: black holes.
Four years in the making the film focuses on two different collaborative investigations. The first is the Event Horizon Telescope project, an international collaboration between different telescopes dotted around the world which rocked the world in 2019 by unveiling the first-ever picture of a black hole.
The other investigation is more cerebral as we’re guided through some of the last pieces of work by professor Stephen Hawking, as he strives to show that black holes do not annihilate the past. In sum, it’s a mind-boggling journey through the brains of our greatest.
The Social Dilemma
A good educational documentary is meant to enact change. You watch Planet Earth and maybe you’ll recycle more. Really you never do though. The Social Dilemma separates itself from the pack then, in being so eye-opening and scarring, that it’ll be hard not to.
As told by the former engineers and executives that built the highly addictive and damaging social media world around us, The Social Dilemma is a behind-the-curtains glimpse into an unimaginable mass brain-washing programme, as well as the constant and intrusive surveillance these corporations are now enacting on us. Big Brother, eat your heart out.
Originally released in 2016, this feature-length documentary exploring the links between slavery, racial injustice, and the US penal system, had a second wind last year in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The film takes its title from the 13th amendment, which outlawed slavery but left a significant loophole, allowing for involuntary servitude to be used as a punishment for crime.
This clause was immediately exploited in the aftermath of the civil war and, as argued by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, continues to be abused to this day. It’s a punishing, eye-opening watch, one that shows the need for further and urgent action.