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6 Gripping Documentaries on Controversy, Corruption, and Cultural Change

6 Gripping Documentaries on Controversy, Corruption, and Cultural Change

Each of these documentaries reveals systemic issues in our culture—and they follow the people who seek to repair them. Their stories share themes of empathy, courage, and fear. And they’re all incredibly captivating.

  • <em>The Bleeding Edge</em>

    The Bleeding Edge

    The Bleeding Edge investigates the hunger our health care system has for new technology while exposing the lack of testing, the profit-driven incentives, and the aggressive marketing and promotion in our $400 billion medical device industry. The film explores the use of several cutting-edge medical devices, including Essure (a “permanent” birth control method), vaginal mesh, chrome-cobalt hip replacements, and the da Vinci Surgical System. We follow several heartbreaking—and infuriating—accounts of women who suffered irrevocable harm after using these technologies. They urge us to take back control over deciding what we put in our body.

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  • <em>Pandemic</em>

    Pandemic

    Made in 2019 (produced by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Sheri Fink) and released in January 2020, Pandemic charts the pre-COVID-19 efforts of the global medical community to prepare for and curtail the spread of pandemics. The docuseries focuses on the seasonal flu and Ebola (but feels prescient). Pandemic maps the fascinating path toward developing effective vaccines, including the highs and lows, testing processes, and funding challenges. What makes Pandemic both informative and deeply moving: seeing doctors and specialists from different backgrounds, from across the United States, India, Egypt, and West Africa, compassionately advocating for patients, cures, and common sense in challenging environments. It’s a story rooted in science and brimming with empathy and hope.

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  • <em>The Pharmacist</em>

    The Pharmacist

    Set in New Orleans, this docuseries follows small-town pharmacist Dan Schneider’s crusade to achieve justice for his son, who was killed in a drug deal gone wrong. The first part of the series is personal: We witness the crumbling of the Schneider family following their son’s death. And then Schneider becomes obsessed with finding his son’s killer. But his obsession pivots from solving one murder case into a much larger campaign. After Schneider notices an alarming increase in prescriptions for Oxycontin at his drugstore, he decides to take on an epidemic. As Schneider attempts to uncover the corruption at the heart of the opioid epidemic (before it gained national attention), we wonder if and when he will realize he’s in over his head. And while you’ll likely root for him, you might also wonder if he’s going too far. The Pharmacist looks closely at class, addiction, and corruption in the South, as well as what happens when an average citizen fights a problem that’s bigger than he is.

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  • <em>The Road to Dharma</em>

    The Road to Dharma

    The Road to Dharma follows eight people on a motorcycle trip meets spiritual quest, led by Himalayan yoga master Anand Mehrotra, to reach four sacred peaks of the Himalayas. This is not your typical yoga retreat: The journey is not about feeling better, says Mehrotra. It’s about transcending. Each rider has their own reason for being there. But as they travel together, it’s clear they are all searching for the same thing: freedom. As we watch their frustrations and fears play out, we also see how they’re charting paths away from the prisons in their minds. And we see that sometimes, our greatest triumph lies just on the other side of our greatest fear.

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  • <em>Hillary</em>

    Hillary

    Over the course of four episodes, director Nanette Burstein tells the story of how Hillary Rodham Clinton became one of the most admired and hated women in the world. The docuseries moves back and forth in time, covering Rodham Clinton’s childhood in a Chicago suburb, her Methodist upbringing, and what it was like being a feminist in the ’70s. It delves into her relationship with Bill Clinton—what drew them together when they first met at Yale Law School, what has kept them together all these years, and just how large an impact Rodham Clinton had on her husband’s political life and legacy. Some of the most fascinating scenes come from Rodham Clinton’s early career as a partner at a law firm in Little Rock and later as the first lady of Arkansas: how she was asked to shape-shift to fit her roles from the beginning, the ways in which she succeeded and failed to do so, and how this informed the public persona she presented as a senator, secretary of state, and presidential candidate. And after intimate interviews—with Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea Clinton; friends; and journalists—as well as a cameo by Barack Obama, this is where the docuseries ends, with the 2016 election. But it also suggests where we might go next today and how, tomorrow, we might look differently at another woman seeking power.

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  • Fantastic Fungi

    Fantastic Fungi

    Filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg’s newest documentary,
    Fantastic Fungi, features awe-inspiring visuals of mushrooms growing and replenishing the earth beneath our feet. The film focuses heavily on famed mycologist Paul Stamets, his lifelong love of mushrooms, and the wonder of their mycelial networks that communicate below ground much as the neurons do in our brains. It also dives into the renaissance of psychedelic research on psilocybin for medical and spiritual uses and the many other potentially beneficial uses of various mushroom species for immunity, cancer treatment, and even cleaning up oil spills. You’ll finish with a deeper appreciation and understanding of mushrooms—they are magic—and a hopeful view of how fungi could be used to change our world.

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