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15 Documentary Movies That Actually Changed the World

These groundbreaking films led to real, tangible change.

A great documentary can change minds, but only a few have truly changed the world. That sort of impact, where a tangible difference in policy or mass opinion takes place as a result of one specific documentary film, is very rare. That's not to say that there aren't documentary movies that are masterpieces despite not having explicitly changed the world: This year's winner of the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, 20 Days in Mariupol, is a truly exceptional and harrowing piece of documentary filmmaking about the Russia's invasion of Ukraine. And, yet, the war continues. That's not the films fault—it just goes to show how hard change can be.

These 15 documentary movies, though, did prompt real change. In most cases, the change was on a much smaller than grand geopolitics, but change is change, even on the individual level. Read on to learn about 15 films that actually changed the world.

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Titicut Follies (1967)

Still from Titicut Follies
Grove Press

For two decades, it was all but impossible to watch this 1967 documentary revealing the horrifying conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, a mental institution in Massachusetts. Just before it was about to premiere, the state sued to prevent it from being shown, in what was presumably an attempt to protect its reputation by hiding the abuses filmmaker Frederick Wiseman documented. This ban was eventually overturned when lawyers representing the families of some of the inmates sued, alleging that the censoring of the film prevented necessary reforms from happening earlier—though some changes did happen at Bridgewater in response to the film. In the years since conditions at mental health facilities have largely improved from the nightmarish ones seen in Titicut Follies.

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait (1974)

General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait
Le Figaro Films/Mara Films/TV Recontre

Not many documentaries can say they're directly responsible for a hostage crisis. French director Barbet Schroeder worked with Idi Amin to make this 1974 documentary that was ultimately more revealing than the dictator of Uganda would have liked. Schroeder actually made two versions of the film: One that Amin saw and approved of and another that was 30 minutes longer and was meant for international release. However, after Amin asked Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi to have some of his agents watch the film in London and report back to him, Amin was irate. In response, he held 100 French residents of his country hostage until Schroeder agreed to cut two and a half additional minutes from the film. The filmmaker did so, though he restored the footage once Amin fell from power.

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Filmmaker Barbara Kopple headed to Kentucky to make what would become a landmark documentary documenting the struggle between striking coal workers in Harlan County, Kentucky, and the authorities, strikebreakers, and hired company thugs who tried to intimidate the laborers to back down.

The documentary won an Oscar, and it remains one of the most pro-labor films ever made, but the very act of making the movie probably had a huge impact, too. The clashes between the striking workers and hired forces were violent, and the presence of Kopple's camera is credited with preventing even more violence or even death from occurring.

Paradise Lost (1996)

This 1996 documentary, which would be followed by sequels in 2000 and 2011, tells the story of the "West Memphis Three," a trio of teenagers who were convicted of the grisly, sensational killings of three boys in 1993, supposedly as part of a Satanic ritual. The documentary pinpointed problems with the trial, giving momentum to a movement to free the three teenagers. When new DNA evidence and possible juror misconduct further cast doubt on their convictions, they eventually reached a deal and were released in 2011.

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The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line was not the documentary that Errol Morris originally intended to make. His initial goal was to make a documentary about prosecution psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, nicknamed "Dr. Death" because he had testified in more than 100 trials that resulted in death sentences. However, early into production, Morris met Randall Dale Adams, an inmate serving a life sentence for the 1976 shooting of a Dallas police officer. Morris didn't think Adams had committed the crime, and he refocused the entire documentary to be about the case. In large part because of the resulting 1988 film, Adams' conviction was overturned, and an innocent man walked free.

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

Michael Moore's 2002 documentary clearly did not end America's gun violence epidemic. However, when dealing with a deadly problem that's deeply, tragically embedded deep into the very fiber of the country, small victories count. One of the final scenes in Bowling for Columbine has Moore and two survivors of the Columbine school shooting attempting to "return" the bullets that are still inside their bodies by going to Kmart, where they were purchased in the first place. In the film, Kmart's Vice President of Communications tells Moore that the company will, in response, stop selling handgun ammunition, a victory that even the director seems surprised by.

Super Size Me (2004)

McDonald's claims that its decision to discontinue the "supersize" portion option, which came just six weeks after the release of this 2004 documentary, was unrelated to Super Size Me. In reality, Morgan Spurlock's documentary, in which he eats only McDonald's food for 30 straight days in an attempt to shed light on America's obesity epidemic, had to have been a factor in the Golden Arches' decision. Super Size Me has since received criticism for some of the claims Spurlock made, but in all likelihood, it is responsible for changing McDonald's menu and making the public think a bit more about what they're eating—although fast food remains hugely popular.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Al Gore's 2006 documentary did more than perhaps any other single piece of media or work of art to raise awareness about climate change. And yet, given where we are nearly two decades later (and what the average yearly temperature is), it feels sadly accurate to say that An Inconvenient Truth didn't single-handedly put a stop to the crisis. Still, Gore and his film deserve credit. They might not have changed the minds of politicians in a position to actually do something about climate change in the '00s (indeed, you could say part of An Inconvenient Truth's impact was causing climate change deniers to double down), but its importance is clear.

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The Cove (2009)

This 2009 documentary about the annual Taiji dolphin drive hunt didn't put a stop to the brutal slaughter of dolphins in Japan—and, indeed, the practice of killing dolphins for meat or capturing them for sale continues. In the years since the documentary came out, the number of dolphins killed each year has seriously declined, but it's also possible that the backlash The Cove prompted, which is considerable, may have caused some Japanese hunters to recommit to the longtime tradition.

GasLand (2010)

GasLand, a 2010 documentary about the impact of fracking that infamously includes scenes of residents who lived near fracking sites being able to light their extremely contaminated tap water on fire, is credited with sparking a surge of opposition to the oil and gas production technique. A study conducted a few years after the film's release found that the movie, which was shown at small screenings in communities that could be affected by fracking, was a primary motivator in getting residents to protest the practice and even strive for the passing of new laws limiting it.

Inside Job (2010)

This Oscar-winning 2010 documentary about the '08 financial crisis informed a lot of views about how the financial services industry and rampant corruption led to it, but more directly it also prompted Columbia University to draw up much, much stricter disclosure rules for its faculty. A professor and the dean of the business school featured in the doc had ties to Wall Street or other finance connections that they were not forthright about, and after Inside Job helped bring these conflicts to light, the university changed its policy about these conflicts of interest.

The Invisible War (2012)

This 2012 documentary revealed just how widespread sexual assault was within the ranks of the United States armed forces and how inadequately branches had responded to reports. The Invisible War features brave testimonials from survivors about the challenges they faced in trying (and in most cases, failing) to get justice following their assaults, leading to various branches of the armed forces making concrete changes to the way they handled such cases.

The year after the film's release, President Barack Obama passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, which included measures aimed at preventing retaliation against survivors and required special prosecutors for such cases rather than continuing to allow commanders to adjudicate within their own units.

The Act of Killing (2012)

This 2012 film is one of the most innovative documentaries ever made and one of the best. Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, working with an Indonesian co-director who remains anonymous for safety reasons that will become clear, wanted to tell the story of the Indonesian mass killings that took place in the mid-'60s, when hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists and alleged enemies of the New Order regime were targeted.

To do so, Oppenheimer talked with some of the men responsible for carrying out the killings, only to find that they were boastful, rather than repentant. The director then had these men reenact the mass murders in a bizarre and extremely revealing exercise that culminates in one of the most amazing true-to-life moments ever recorded. The Act of Killing faced heavy backlash in Indonesia, but it also marked a major moment of reckoning as survivors of the mass killings began to feel empowered to talk about what happened.

Blackfish (2013)

The 2013 documentary Blackfish made a splash telling the story of Tilikum, a captive orca who was involved in the deaths of three people. Using this killer whale as the "main character," the documentary exposes the dark, inhumane side of keeping such intelligent animals in captivity, especially for use in shows. The impact was immediate, as SeaWorld faced backlash for the long-standing practice, losing advertisers and facing new legislation regarding captive orcas. The marine life park announced it was stopping its live orca shows and ending its captive breeding program only a few years later.

Icarus (2017)

Bryan Fogel originally planned to make a documentary about rampant doping in professional cycling by taking performance-enhancing drugs and seeing how far he could go. In the process, however, he stumbled upon a far, far bigger story, as the documentary helped uncover Russia's state-sponsored Olympic doping program thanks to whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, then-head of the country's anti-doping laboratory.

Fogel and Rodchenkov went to the U.S. Department of Justice and the media during production of the documentary, which came out a few years later in 2017 on Netflix. Russia was banned from sending athletes to the Games in the resulting International Olympic Committee investigation, and Rodchenkov is living in hiding in the U.S.

James Grebey
James has been an entertainment journalist for more than a decade, writing and editing for outlets like Vulture, Inverse, Polygon, TIME, The Daily Beast, SPIN Magazine, Fatherly, and more. Read more
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