Everyone knows that hard-hitting documentaries are A Very Good Thing, a worthy break from all those lightsabers and cybernetic organisms. They inform, intrigue and keep our fingers on the pulse, enabling us to keep abreast of important issues and, more importantly, sound clever in conversation. There’ve been some crackers lately – The Cove, Enron, Sicko, Food, Inc., to name a few – and two more are blazing onto our screens in the shape of Collapse and Less Than Zero. But these docs are nothing short of palm-sweaty, run-to-the-nearest-bunker terrifying and are filled with home truths that will change the way you view the world. This is serious stuff and, being serious people, we’ve picked eight documentaries you need to watch. Like, right now. Before it’s too late.
What we should fear: The collapse of our food supply.
Like a horror movie directed by Winnie the Pooh, this Brit documentary explores the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder – the mysterious, and seriously alarming, disappearance of millions of honeybees across Europe and America in the winter of 2008-2009. Where did they go? Were they killed by pesticides? Malnutritution? Or did they just go into hiding after watching The Swarm? Whatever the cause, CCD has far-reaching consequences. Bees polinate many of the plants that serve us as food – $18bn worth of foodstuffs every year in the US – so no bees, much emptier supermarket shelves, and not just in the honey section. Frantic research is underway to identify the exact causes of the mysterious goings-on. Pray they work it out before we’re all chewing shoe leather.
Are we all going to die? Probably not, but start planting food now to be on the safe side, and save your honey for a rainy day.
What you can do about it: Take up beekeeping. Plant wildflowers in your garden. Don’t get stung except by wasps (bee stings kill the little stripey fellas, you know)
What should we fear: The end of the world’s fish supply.
Animals definitely are harmed in the making of this genuinely upsetting doc. Lots of them. The notion that mankind’s pillaging of the world’s oceans has reached apocalyptic levels courses through every one of this powerful polemic’s 85 minutes. Too smart to make obvious villains (Japanese whalers aside), English filmmaker Rupert Murray’s doc examines the industrialisation of fishing, and the destructive demand for fish from Western and Asian markets. Like The Cove spun out on a global scale, it packs a serious wallop. Just weight up these facts: the global fishing fleet is 250% bigger than the oceans can sustain; 90% of the world’s seas are fished out; it takes five kilos of anchovies to produce one of salmon; the black market in fish is worth $9bn a year. It’s enough to make Robert Shaw chew his pipe. If you’re a cod, Judgment Day could be coming some time in 2048. Mind you, if you’re a cod and you’re reading this, you probably knew that.
Are we all going to die? Over 90% of the world’s population rely on fish for protein, so unless someone can make sea monkeys edible, overfishing is a very scary prospect indeed.
What you can do about it: Eat only sustainable fish (ie bluefin is right out). Join the Marine Conservation Society. Don’t use drift nets.
What we should fear: Big business.
A terrifying treatise on capitalism, The Corporation is basically Avatar reimagined by Marx and Engels. Its premise is simple: big business shares a whole bunch of traits with your friendly neighbour psycho – and not in the sense that it’ll turn up by your shower dressed as its mum. This Canadian doc points out that since an 1886 amendment to the US Constitution, corporations have assumed the legal rights of a person, extending them protections initially intended for freed slaves. So what kind of person is a corporation? Basically, a conscience-free psychopath who makes Colonel Quaritch look like Peter Pan. Exploitation, cynical marketing to kids, pollution, warmongering: just about anything goes in the pursuit of the profit imperative, and often does. It’s scary stuff. Watch in as part of a double bill with Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, then sob yourself to sleep.
Are we all going to die? As long as you don’t go swimming in any rivers, probably not, but there’s nothing here to make anyone feel good about buying stuff.
What you can do about it: Shop responsibly. Don’t invest in unethical companies. Don’t let your children watch TV. Write stuff on your hands like Chris Martin.
What we should fear: The military-industrial complex.
Like the anti-Top Gun, this film examines the role of the big arms manufacturers in influencing US foreign policy. It’s an unashamedly left-wing critique of 20th century policy-making, but with a surprising starting point: Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s epic valedictory speech way back in 1961. From behind his grand White House desk he farewelled the nation by warning it that a growing military-industrial complex would probably end up blasting it into the middle of next week. It’s a hugely impressive – and prescient – oratory. Eugene Jarecki's enthralling documentary takes Eisenhower’s ball and runs with it, grilling talking heads from across the political spectrum (just try getting John McCain and Gore Vidal to share a room, let alone a viewpoint) to re-examine Vietnam, Iraq and 9/11, and flashing a giant warning sign at what Ike called "the disastrous rise of misplaced power". The military-industrial complex, in other words, has become self-aware. Think Cyberdyne Systems but with smarter uniforms.
Are we all going to die? The end game is all-out war so, yes, quite possibly. Come on, we’ve all seen War Games.
What you can do about it: Build a bunker.
What we should fear: Nuclear annihilation.
Produced by Lawrence Bender, long-time cohort of Quentin Tarantino, this shock-doc is about as cheery as the bit in Reservoir Dogs where everyone dies in a giant pool of blood. It’s not feel-good stuff, and it’s not designed to be. There are, after all, still enough nuclear warheads hanging about and ready to launch to kill every man, woman and child on the planet several times over, and unless your name happens to be Jack Bauer, there ain’t no coming back from that. Director Lucy Walker’s film gripped audiences at Cannes and Sundance, scaring the hell out of just about anyone who saw it. It’s a timely reminder of the constant, but often overlooked, shadow of nuclear war, set within the context of proliferation and state-endorsed terrorism. It’s a reminder that that little red button is still eminently pushable. This is Threads-directed-by-George-Romero scary.
Are we all going to die? Yes. RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!
What you can do about it: Join the Global Zero campaign for nuclear disarmament. Stock up on bajillion-degree resistance fire suits. Develop your own Star Wars programme.
What we should fear: Complete social and economic collapse.
Unusually, Chris Smith’s (American Movie) troubling documentary/gripping character study orbits around only one talking head. Mind you, when your talking head is ex-copper-turned-investigative-journalist-turned-arch-conspiracist, Michael Ruppert, you only need one. Ruppert, all fire and brimstone, chain-smokes through an apocalyptic theory that will have you reaching for the fags, too. His arguments run the gamut from highly plausible (dwindling oil supplies will cause economic meltdown and social breakdown) to a bit bonkers (prepare for self-sufficiency by peeing on your garden). His credentials, though, are impressive – this is the man who predicted the credit crunch two years before it happened – and probed intelligently, his arguments have a fearful logic. If you’re not familiar with the terms ‘peak oil’ and ‘fiat money’, they’ll haunt your nightmares by the time he’s done.
Are we all going to die? No, but we may have to make our own clothes.
What you can do about it: Put all your money in gold. Replace your flowerbeds with root vegetables. Buy a horse and cart.
What should we fear: Global warming.
Part-documentary, part-pseudo-recreation of an apocalyptic future, part terrifying lecture by Kobayashi from The Usual Suspects, Franny Armstrong’s (McLibel) doc is full of very inconvenient truths. Like, the world is heading for the kind of environmental catastrophe that will have even Roland Emmerich’s wolves reaching for the hard stuff. It’s 2055 and Pete Postlethwaite’s grizzled survivor, sitting in a mega-tower high above an ice-free Arctic, warns of a world in which the rainforests have vanished, the Alps are bereft of snow and London is completely flooded. The cause of this holocaust – global warming – is highlighted, argued and chewed over by the cast of entrepreneurs, execs, environmentalists and disaster survivors, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusions. If your conclusion is anything other than “holy shit”, you’re a lot less easily panicked than us.
Are we all going to die? If the film’s global warming predictions turn out to be even half true, then, yes, probably. At the very least, you’re going to get wet.
What you can do about it: Don’t fly. Conserve energy. Build a mega-tower in the Arctic. If you’re not lucky enough to be a Bond villain, move somewhere hilly.
What should we fear: Extinction.
One to make dinosaurs smug, The 11th Hour sees narrator Leo DiCaprio warn of the perils of global warming and pollution with a zeal perhaps surprising from a man who once came off second best in an encounter with an iceberg. Producing an impressive conveyor belt of super smart talking-heads, including Stephen Hawkins and documentary tart Mikhail Gorbachev, it’s a sobering insight into mankind’s full-scale assault on the planet’s resources and environments. A horror film in all but name, it’s basically a megamix of shock-doc terrors, from overfishing to deforestation to mass species extinction. The words ‘pissing’, ‘own’ and ‘doorstep’ spring rapidly to mind. As Leo asks, “Will our pivotal generation create a sustainable world in time?” You heard the man. Get cracking, people…
Are we all going to die? Yes, very possibly. The clock is ticking.
What you can do about it: Plant trees. Buy a Prius. Escape into a dream-world and start incepting a way to tidy things up.