I first got into watching documentaries as a senior in college, when I was taking a course called American Independent Films. Every week our class would watch “indie films,” films outside the major film studio system that are either quirky, gritty, or deal with fringe topics that don’t normally get coverage in the mainstream media. As part of our course, we went to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah for 10 days. This was a very cool experience in which I developed an appreciation for independent films, and in particular documentaries. I hadn’t realized up until that point how engrossing documentaries could be and that they were one of the best ways to learn about a particular topic.
When I became vegan two years later, I started watching documentaries relating to vegetarianism, and found that they were some of the most provocative films I had ever seen. I’m now convinced that if more people watched documentaries about the vast web of crises caused by animal agriculture, our society would look a lot different.
Below is a select list of some of the best documentaries about health, the environment, and animal welfare. At the end I share my favorite buttery vegan popcorn recipe. But first, here are some of my thoughts about watching documentaries.
Getting into the habit of watching documentaries
Exposing ourselves to images, especially video footage, is perhaps the most powerful means through which we can grasp the importance of adopting a vegan diet. Otherwise, the health, environmental, and animal rights concerns surrounding the Standard American Diet (SAD) will remain “out of sight, out of mind.” In particular, it’s important that we bear witness to the pain and suffering inflicted upon animals in the name of SAD and our consumer society. Knowledge is power, and once we start to become more aware of the effect that our consumption of meat and dairy has on all aspects of life on this planet, the more compelled we will be to take action to stop the destruction of animal agribusiness.
All that being said, I don’t necessarily recommend watching too many documentaries in a row. Some of these documentaries – particularly Earthlings, Blackfish, and Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson – are very disturbing because they deal with how animals are oppressed, violated, and abused in modern-day society. After watching these, you may need to take a break from watching documentaries for a little while. I usually only watch 1 or 2 documentaries per month, and the rest of the time I watch shows on Netflix.
My roundup of favorite documentaries
Eating reveals that our consumption of meat and dairy is the primary cause of illness and death in our culture. Prior to the late 19th century, people consumed very minimal amounts of meat and dairy, which is why heart disease and cancer were virtually non-existant. According to Eating, “our switch from a plant-based diet to an animal-based diet has been the biggest health disaster in human history.” View this one with your family – they’ll have a hard time refuting the straightforward, 60 Minutes-style evidence underscoring the health advantages a plant-based diet.
Bring your tissues – this film is excruciatingly painful to watch. Earthlings takes an unflinching look at our society’s treatment of animals, drawing parallels between speciesism and racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and domination. Footage obtained from hidden cameras unveils the nightmarish realities of animals used for food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research that are otherwise well-hidden from view. Watch Earthlings and you will never think about animal exploitation industries the same way.
What is it like to be a 23 foot long killer whale living in a 60 x 80 foot tank at SeaWorld? Though SeaWorld’s public relations efforts would have us believe that SeaWorld is paradise for its marine mammals, Blackfish shows us another side of the story. Documenting the life of Tilikum, who was abducted from his family and natural habitat in 1983, Blackfish reveals what decades of captivity and isolation can do to a being that’s wired for complex social bonding and swimming up to 100 miles per day. Orcas have never killed humans in the wild, and yet Tilikum has been implicated in the deaths of 3 people during his tenure at SeaWorld. In the film we also learn that SeaWorld managed to obscure many facts surrounding the deaths, thereby misleading its employees.
A fun, lighthearted, and educational documentary following the lives of 3 omnivorous New Yorkers as they experiment with eating a vegan diet for 6 weeks. It’s a great one to watch with friends, family, and even kids!
Cowspiracy should be required viewing for anyone who claims to be passionate about the environment. The documentary follows Kip Anderson, a young environmentalist, in his quest to get to the bottom of why the mainstream media and environmental organizations refuse to acknowledge animal agribusiness as the #1 cause of environmental degradation.
Like Eating, Forks Over Knives makes the bold claim that diseases of affluence such as cancer and heart disease can be prevented and / or reversed by adopting a plant-based diet. It follows the career trajectories of Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutritional scientist at Cornell, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, a former head surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic. Despite having grown up on a dairy farm, Dr. Campbell eventually came upon an unexpected discovery in his research that would contradict everything he had been taught about nutrition. His findings around the strong correlation between animal protein consumption and cancer compelled him to take part in the largest nutrition study ever conducted, The China-Cornell-Oxford Project, to observe the effect that consumption of meat and dairy has on people’s health. Meanwhile, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn undertook a 12-year study in which 18 of his patients abstained from animal products. The data from Dr. Campbell and Dr. Esselstyn’s research was nothing short of astonishing.
This riveting documentary chronicles the life and work of Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd and badass rogue of the environmental movement. Sea Shepherd works to protect a variety of marine wildlife including dolphins, sea lions, porpoises, seals, and turtles, but the film focuses primarily on the organization’s anti-whaling campaigns. Putting their lives at risk, together the members of Sea Shepherd have successfully sunk several whaling ships, helping to thwart the continued poaching of marine wildlife.
The crew aboard Sea Shepherd’s ship eats a 100% vegan diet, and in her great book Cookin’ Up a Storm, Laura Dakin shares sea stories and recipes from the organization’s anti-whaling campaigns.
Vegan buttery popcorn recipe
One of my favorite parts about going to the movies when I was growing up was getting a big bag of popcorn. Nowadays, I generally prefer to watch films from home. When I’m not eating dinner while I watch a movie, I’ll make this delicious popcorn recipe instead.
The movie theater variety is usually vegan but is typically GMO and highly processed, so it’s best eaten as an occasional treat. This recipe has fresher ingredients, and contains hemp seeds, which have a perfect ratio of 3:6 fatty acids and are loaded with antioxidants and protein.