5 Human Rights Documentaries Available Online

If you want to get a good grip on a human rights issue, a documentary is one of the best ways to achieve a deeper understanding. Documentaries often focus on issues that no fiction film would touch, therefore drawing attention to hidden injustices through a presentation of real-world issues and facts. That doesn’t mean a documentary must be dry and boring, however. These films are often the most compelling method of bringing  truths into the light. Affected by what they’ve just seen, many viewers take action. Here are five human rights documentaries available online:

The White Helmets (2016)

Netflix | Director: Orlando Von Einsiedel

A Netflix original short, “The White Helmets” follows three volunteer rescue workers in Aleppo, Syria, and Turkey as they risk their lives helping others during the war. The White Helmets group, which was founded in 2014, is officially known as the Syria Civil Defence. The short’s director Orlando Von Einsiedel first became aware of them after watching Youtube footage of an infant being rescued from rubble. He eventually commissioned Khaleed Khateeb, a volunteer for the SCD and informal documentor of rescue missions, to be the film’s videographer. “The White Helmets” won Best Documentary (Short Subject) at the 89th Academy Awards. Unfortunately, the United States government denied Khateeb’s entry, so he could not attend the ceremony.

13th (2016)

Netflix | Director: Ava DuVernay

Directed and written by Ava DuVernay, “13th” examines the link between race, justice, and mass incarceration in the United States. It’s named after the 13th Amendment to the US Consittution, which abolished slavery. However, the film argues that a new form of slavery emerged in the form of Jim Crow laws, the war on drugs, and the prison-industrial complex. These types of systems affect people of color at a disproportionate rate, keeping them oppressed and trapped in cycles of poverty and incarceration.

Even people familiar with US history will most likely see it from a different perspective with this film. In an interview with NPR, DuVernay said she made this film for two audiences: “folks out there that know about this and folks out there that have never heard of it.” The documentary won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. It holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness (2017)

Amazon | Director: Don Sawyer

Homelessness has been on the rise in the United States in recent years. Originally released in 2015, “Under the Bridge” takes a closer look at one area in particular: Indianapolis, specifically, Davidson Street. The film explores the lives of several campers, sharing their stories of physical disabilities, criminal convictions, and other challenges that led to their present situation. “Under the Bridge” also confronts the fact many governments respond by criminalizing the behavior of the homeless, such as sleeping in public.

Director Don Sawyer’s goal was to present a comprehensive picture of the situation, giving viewers a better insight into a very complex human rights issue. The film has been shown at places like Harvard University and the Housing and Urban Development office in Washington, D.C.

Before the Flood (2016)

Netflix/ Disney+ | Director: Fisher Stevens

A-list celebrity Leonardo DiCaprio is known for his environmental activism. This film represents three years of work between the star, director Fisher Stevens, and countless others involved with the project. The film takes the viewer all over the world, documenting the impacts of climate change and pushing back on climate change denial, which is especially prevalent in the United States. Possible solutions are also discussed.

While some viewers might be hesitant to take this documentary seriously because of its huge star, “Before the Flood” is still a worthy entry in the canon of human rights and environmental films.  DiCaprio uses his influence to draw attention to arguably the biggest problem facing the entire world. “Before the Flood” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and has been made available to watch on a variety of platforms, including Netflix and Disney+.

Reversing Roe (2018)

Netflix | Director: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

Reproductive rights in the United States face challenges on a daily basis. This 2018 documentary analyzes why while exploring the history of the battle between pro-choice and pro-life/anti-choice thinking. With interviews from a wide variety of experts, politicians, and activists, the directors build a comprehensive picture of where the US is now with reproductive rights.

“Reversing Roe” is an excellent introduction to anyone interested in the state of abortion and choice in the United States. While it may not dig too deeply on many issues, it sets up a foundation for viewers and inspires them to more learning and action. “Reversing Roe” was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Politics and Government Documentary.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.