If you want to learn about a human rights issue, a documentary is one of the best ways to achieve a deeper understanding. Documentaries often focus on issues no fiction film would touch, which draws attention to hidden injustices, unrecognized activists, and unique perspectives. That doesn’t mean a documentary must be dry and boring, however. 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 13 human rights documentaries available online:
Note: Territory restrictions apply. Distribution rights also affect availability.
#1. There’s Something in the Water (2019)
Plex, Apple, Amazon, Microsoft Store | Director: Elliot Page and Ian Daniel
In this documentary, directors Elliot Page and Ian Daniel examine the effects of environmental damage on Black Canadian and First Nations communities in Nova Scotia, Canada. In Shelbourne, where a Black community lives, there’s a link between contaminated well water and high cancer rates. Meanwhile, in Indigenous communities, polluted water is also causing serious health issues. The documentary gets its name from Ingrid Waldron’s 2019 book, Something in the Water, which discusses environmental racism, settler colonialism, and the connection between environmental racism and other forms of oppression.
Elliot Page made the film with his own money. It received favorable reviews and is available to rent on Apple, Amazon, and the Microsoft Store. At the time of writing, it’s also available to stream for free on Plex.
#2. Bananas!* (2009)
Tubi, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, Youtube | Director: Frederick Gertten
In 1961, scientist Charles Hine released a draft report cautioning US regulators about a pesticide that would be used for bananas. The pesticide, called DBCP, could be harmful to human reproduction. An official from Shell said it didn’t matter, and when the pesticide was licensed, the label contained no information about impacts on male fertility. The documentary “Bananas!*” explores what happened next. It focuses on the Dole Food Company and banana plantation workers from Nicaragua, who continued to be exposed to the chemical even after the US banned its use on the mainland.
When the film was released, Dole sued Gertten for defamation. The company also threatened legal action against the LA Film Festival, which removed the film from competition. In 2010, a judge ruled that the movie could be released in the United States. Gertten ended up making another movie about his experience with Dole called “Big Boys Gone Bananas*!” Plantation workers from Nicaragua and other countries are still seeking justice.
#3. Human Flow (2017)
Amazon Prime, Apple, Vudu, Google Play, Youtube | Director: Ai Weiwei
Artist and activist Ai Weiwei was on vacation in Lesbos, Greece, when he saw refugees arriving on the island. He began shooting footage on his phone. Struck by what he saw, he made “Human Flow,” a documentary that captures the global refugee crisis. Using footage from phones, cameras, and even drones, the film travels to over 20 countries to capture both the scale of the crisis and the individual stories of refugees.
Ai Weiwei has said this film is personal as he experienced human rights violations during China’s Cultural Revolution. His goal was to encourage more understanding, tolerance, and compassion. The title, “Human Flow,” relates to flooding, but rather than create dams in the form of borders and walls, the film wants people to address what drives people from their homes in the first place.
#4. Writing with Fire (2021)
Apple, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu | Directors: Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas
In India, there’s only one news agency run by Dalit (oppressed-caste) women. It’s called Khabar Lyahira, and as the publication shifted from 14 years of print to digital journalism, its female journalists reported from some of the most challenging areas in the country. For five years, “Writing with Fire” follows Chief Reporter Meera, crime reporter Suneeta, and their team as they risk their lives and safety to tell the truth.
“Writing with Fire” has received universal acclaim and several awards. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 94th Academy Awards, which made it the first Indian feature documentary to be nominated. In 2023, it won a Peabody for Best Documentary Film, which made the filmmakers the first Indian filmmakers in the award’s history to win.
#5. Crip Camp (2020)
Netflix | Directors: Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht
There are countless summer camps held around the United States, but Camp Jened, which was established in 1951, was different. It was designed to be a community place for kids with disabilities. The environment was loose and fun, which gave kids the freedom to experiment, play, and talk about a more inclusive future. In “Crip Camp,” the filmmakers explore how Camp Jened inspired several counselors and campers to become leaders in the disability rights movement. Judith Heumann, who attended the camp from age 9-18, went on to work with the US State Department and World Bank on disability rights and the independent living movement.
The idea for a film about Camp Jened started with lunch between James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham. Lebrecht, a filmmaker and disability rights activist, mentioned how he’d like to see a film about his summer camp. When Newnham asked for more details, the story stunned her. Their film “Crip Camp” would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award. It’s available to stream on Netflix.
#6. I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
Apple, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu | Director: Raoul Peck
When iconic American author James Baldwin died, he left behind an unfinished manuscript called Remember This House. Director Raoul Peck bases his film on this manuscript, which explores the history of racism in the United States and Baldwin’s memories of assassinated civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film’s five chapters cover topics like school integration, how white and Black people are portrayed in film, and the history of the exploitation of Black people.
The film received numerous accolades and award nominations, including a nomination for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards. While Baldwin didn’t get to finish his last book, this film does a good job exploring his brilliant analyses.
#7. Coded Bias (2020)
Netflix | Director: Shalini Kantayya
In her role as an MIT media researcher, Joy Buolamwini realized that many facial recognition systems didn’t recognize her face. Curious, she dug deeper and soon learned that these systems only worked when she wore a white mask and covered her dark skin. The film “Coded Bias” explores this phenomenon and uncovers how artificial technology affects minorities. There are few legal structures for AI, which flings the door open for human rights violations. If AI can discriminate, it has huge implications for the technology’s use in housing, career opportunities, healthcare, education, credit, and the legal system.
“Coded Bias” has received many accolades and praise. The film is available to stream on Netflix. As AI and related technologies become more prevalent, it’s essential to understand their impact on human rights.
#8. Chasing Coral (2017)
Netflix | Director: Jeff Orlowski
Coral reefs are vital ecosystems. Over half a billion people depend on coral for protection, their income, and food. Coral reefs are also a source of new medicines like antivirals and cancer-fighting drugs. Unfortunately, coral reefs are in danger. In “Chasing Coral,” a team of scientists, divers, and photographers around the world set out to discover what’s happening to coral reefs, which are disappearing at an alarming rate. The culprit? Climate change.
“Chasing Coral” won the Audience Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Having won awards for its photography and cinematography, the film wants to show viewers the impact of global warming, which turns beautiful, vibrant reefs into empty, bleached husks. Jeff Orlowski is also the director of 2012’s “Chasing Ice,” which has a similar plot featuring ice instead of coral.
#9. The White Helmets (2016)
Netflix | Director: Orlando Von Einsiedel
This Netflix original short follows three volunteer rescue workers in Aleppo, Syria, and Turkey. Their official name is the Syrian Civil Defence, but they’re recognized by their white helmets. Formed in 2014 during the Syrian Civil War, most of the volunteers work in Syria providing medical evacuation, search and rescue, and service delivery. The group was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize.
Director Orlando Von Einsiedel first became aware of the White Helmets after watching YouTube footage of them rescuing an infant 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.
#10. 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 Constitution, which abolished slavery. 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 by 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 after watching 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.
#11. Under the Bridge: The Criminalization of Homelessness (2017)
Amazon | Director: Don Sawyer
In the United States, rates of homelessness have significantly increased in the last decade. “Under the Bridge” takes a closer look at one area in particular: Davidson Street in Indianapolis. Several campers share their stories of physical disabilities, criminal convictions, and other challenges. The film also criticizes common government responses, which often criminalize homelessness by banning sleeping in public, camping, and loitering.
Director Don Sawyer wanted to present a comprehensive picture of the situation and give 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.
#12. Reversing Roe (2018)
Netflix | Director: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg
Reproductive rights in the United States are under threat. This 2018 documentary analyzes why while also 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 basic picture of the history of 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 into 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.
#13. The Janes (2022)
Max | Directors: Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin
Between 1968 and 1973, a group of women performed around 11,000 low-cost and free abortions in Chicago. In 1972, police raided one of their apartments and arrested seven women. Known simply as “Jane,” this network used code names, fronts, and safe houses to protect themselves and the thousands of people seeking abortions. This documentary, which came out just months before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, features interviews with several members of the collective. Some had never spoken on the record before.
At the time of writing, many people in the United States no longer have to imagine a time before Roe v. Wade as the consequences are already becoming clear. “The Janes” inspires those unsure of what to do now that abortion rights are the most threatened they’ve been in decades.
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