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12 Documentaries That Explore Different Cultures

12 Documentaries That Explore Different Cultures

Picture of Sophia White
Updated: 15 November 2016
Good documentaries often give a voice to the voiceless. From the large experience of nations to those of small towns and tribes, here are 12 such films that shed light on cultures from around the world.

Baraka (1992)


Shot in 25 countries over six continents, Baraka has become one of the most successful and acclaimed documentaries to explore human life around the world. What is more impressive is that it eschews traditional narrative or voiceover, acting more as a “guided meditation on humanity”. It largely lets the visuals speak for themselves, though the occasional manipulation of the photography through time-lapse and slow motion aids the viewer’s contemplation of the different cultures that are shown.


Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)

This Oscar-winner portrays the lives of some of the children who live in Calcutta’s red light district, where their mothers work as prostitutes. The film was originally part of director Zana Briski’s photography project. She gave cameras to some of the children and, in recording much of the film’s footage, they facilitated a closer look at life in the area than would have otherwise been possible. The film also  illustrates the resilience of these children.


5 Broken Cameras (2011)

The conflict in Israel and Palestine is constantly being shown on TV news, though by its nature it pays little regard to the people that live there. Emad Burnat, a self-taught Palestinian cameraman, here provides a personal, first-hand account of his life and the non-violent protests in the West Bank village of  Bil’in. The film is structured into five chapters, one for each of Burnat’s cameras over time, and shows the evolution and ongoing upheaval within the area.


Favela Rising (2005)

Brazil’s favelas have been the subject of a number of films over the years, though usually in dramatic fiction. Favela Rising, which shows the dark side of slum life, follows a former drug trafficker haunted by the murders of many of his family and friends. However, the documentary also shows the community’s social revolution, which had been fostered with the help of hip-hop music and Afro-Brazilian dance. The film is a portrait of both hardship and hope.


God Grew Tired Of Us (2006)

This documentary follows three boys from Sudan as they endeavour to move to the United States. They are survivors of the estimated  2o,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan” who fled the Second Sudanese Civil War, which began in 1983. Many of them spent years wandering around sub-Saharan Africa in search of safety. The film shows the community that the refugees forged for themselves and how they tried to maintain their traditional ways of life throughout their displacement.


Happiness (2013)

Bhutan was for many years one of the world’s most underdeveloped nations. Television was first introduced in 1999 and had a big impact on the country. Happiness follows the life of Peyangki, an eight-year-old living in a remote Himalayan village. Before his mother sends him to be raised as a monk, he takes a long journey to visit his sister in the nation’s capital. The film captures the end of the traditional Bhutanese village lifestyle and also shows the wonder of a boy who is being shown modern technology for the first time.


A Kalahari Family (2002)

John Marshall’s five-part, six-hour opus charts his fifty-year engagement with the Ju’/hoansi bushmen of southern Africa. One of the most well-respected films in the ethnographic field, it chronicles the changing lifestyles of the bushmen during the eras of Apartheid, Namibian independence, and globalization. It’s also a detailed anthropological study of a single family over five decades. By virtue of spending so much time with the family, Marshall created a deeply moving work that broke down the myths and stereotypes of these “primitive” people.


Love Hotel (2014)

While on the outside Japan may look like one of the most hyper-modern societies in the world, it’s still one of the most socially reserved. This is where Osaka’s Angelo Love Hotel comes in, catering as it does to singles who want to have refuge, privacy, or to play out their fantasies – and also to couples looking to reignite a spark in their relationship. The movie gives access to the lives of a wide variety of staff and clients of the hotel, but ultimately it’s an exploration of Japan’s conservativeness.


Nanook of the North (1922)

Robert J, Flaherty’s silent masterpiece captures a year in the life of an Inuit hunter and his family. Viewers accompany Nanook as he goes about his daily life, hunting for food and travelling. It was the first feature-length documentary to include elements of docudrama and the seminal ethnographic film. Audiences had never previously being given such a close look at an isolated culture.


Vernon, Florida (1981)

While his films are relatively modern, Errol Morris can still be regarded as one of the fathers of modern documentary filmmaking. While Florida may not seem like the most culturally abstract place on earth, this portrait of the small town in the state’s north-west shows us that there are microcultures to be found everywhere. Morris had originally intended to tell the stories of Vernon-ites who cut off their limbs for insurance fraud, but he was unable to get the interviews. Instead, he created a rich tapestry of the different kinds of eccentrics who are ubiquitous in small-town USA.


Village at the End of the World (2012)

This beautiful film puts isolation into perspective. It was shot over the course of a year in a village in northern Greenland that’s home to 59 people. They have to hunt and fish for their food, and for much of the year they can only be reached by helicopter. They dwell for long stretches in complete darkness or complete sunlight. For some this is paradise; for others, a dying way of life.


War/Dance (2007)

War/Dance is a beautiful and uplifting film based on dark subject matter. It follows three children living in a Ugandan displacement camp under military protection from the terrorist group that has been rebelling against the government for several decades. With fear comes hope, for these children aim to compete in Kampala’s national music and dance festival. The film explores the preparation for this competition, the horrors that the residents have had to endure, and how these two elements can feed into each other.