Lesser-Known Environmental Documentaries

If you have an interest in the environment, consider some environmental documentaries beyond those that have already had worldwide acclaim like Food, Inc., The Cove, or An Inconvenient Truth (or its popular sequel). Here is a list of a dozen alternative documentaries from 1982 through the present.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011): All three films share the same cinematographer, and the latter two share the same director. They use nontraditional storytelling methods to connect worldwide visions — nature and nurture and the greatness of it all — with the transcendental musical backdrop of musicians like Philip Glass and Dead Can Dance.

Blue Vinyl (2002): A frightening yet humorous look at the world of vinyl. It’s not about vintage record shops, but long-term health effects of polyvinyl chloride from its production to its use in homes to its disposal, in small communities in Louisiana.


The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2005): Farmer John is a man who chooses to work the fields, yet could wear a feather boa as easily as a pair of jeans (and does). Illinois farmer John Peterson rises out of both bankruptcy and depression to resurrect Midwest farm communities in the 1980s and soothes his soul with his passion for reaching people through organic agriculture.

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006): Explore the history of this once-promising technology, from creation to destruction of the battery electric vehicle in the US, specifically the General Motors EV1 model of the mid-1990s.

Half Life: A Journey to Chernobyl (2007): Half Life is a poetic and haunting look at reactor four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which exploded in 1986, sending an enormous radioactive cloud over northern Ukraine and neighboring Belarus. The effects of this tragedy have been long-lasting and are presented here via the sorrowful poetry of Mario Petrucci.

Vanishing of the Bees (2009): Follow beekeepers as they strive to keep their bees healthy and fulfill pollination contracts across the country. Through powerful imagery and commentary, voiced by Ellen Page, witness the struggles beekeepers face as they plead their case and travel across the Pacific Ocean in the quest to protect their honeybees.

Blackfish (2013): With the recent death of Tilikum in January 2017, we are reminded of his story in this documentary. He was a tormented captive killer whale who took the lives of several people, surfacing problems within the sea park industry of keeping orcas in captivity, as well as man’s relationship to nature and how little we know about these highly intelligent creatures.

How to Change the World (2015): Using previously unseen archive footage to bring their fascinating tale to life, this is the story of the pioneers who founded Greenpeace and helped define the modern green movement. From their humble start in 1971, it shows their gradual shift in tone and focus over the years.

When Two Worlds Collide (2016): Audiences are brought directly into the line of fire between powerful opposing Peruvian leaders who will stop at nothing to reach their respective goals, as they take on large businesses that are destroying the Amazon. On the one side is President Alan Garcia, who aggressively extracts oil, minerals and gas from untouched indigenous Amazonian land. Opposing him is indigenous leader Alberto Pizango, whose impassioned speeches against Garcia’s destructive actions prove a powerful rallying of opposition, bringing a tense war of words erupting into deadly violence.

Kedi (2017): Some recent documentaries have been less issue-driven, with less focus on spurring the audience to action. For example, Kedi, a film focusing on an overpopulation of stray cats in Istanbul, has a more observational style than a specific agenda in telling their story. Instead of exploiting the bridge between human and feline, it is more philosophical in nature with insights about the cats and life in the city.

Given (2017): This documentary feature explores living off the grid. Told from the perspective of a 6-year old child, it is a simple, yet contemplative story of a unique family legacy come full circle. Given follows legendary surfers Aamion and Daize Goodwin from their island home of Kauai through 15 countries in a quest for waves, fulfilling their calling that was handed down through generations. This young boy gains understanding of life through his familial bonds and his family’s reverence for nature, a humbling contrast of a small voice voyaging through a big world and finding its way home again.

The Wild & Scenic Film Festival (Annual Festival & Touring Shorts Program): On the environmental film festival circuit, The Wild & Scenic Film Festival is the largest film festival of its kind, with its touring shorts program and full annual festival in its California home. It aims to leave attendees inspired and motivated to make a difference in their communities and the world.