#1. Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno
Herzog’s documentaries often feature ambitious heroes and impossible adventures that always bring us back to nature and what it means to be human. His commentary throughout is unmistakably eccentric and his voice enjoyably conspiratorial — even his biggest “failed” documentaries are epic. He lingers way too long after he’s asked a question to an interviewee, which makes for plenty of comical and awkward moments. This time he journeys to discover the violent, beautiful and rapturous nature of volcanoes, where he stands feet away from an erupting volcano, dodging lava bullets. The colors and sounds of the pyroclastic flows are mesmerizing and trance-like.
Questions to ponder before and after watching: What is a noble death? Has our perception of heroes changed (what’s up with our recent obsession with self-inflicted pain?) Why is 13 Reasons Why more popular than Joan of Arc?
#2. Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia: A Clandestine Chemist’s Tale
Hamilton Morris travels around the world to explore the science of psychoactive drugs — from marijuana gold mines in Swaziland, to clandestine MDMA labs and African ceremonies with the iboga plant, he does so non-judgmentally and gives everything a shot. This specific episode explores the story of a busted MDMA lab and features — perhaps for the first time ever — an existing clandestine lab with a live demonstration of how to make MDMA. You can find the entire first series on youtube.
Questions to ponder before and after watching: In the past, thousands have been arrested for buying and selling marijuana (and many have had their lives ruined). Since the laws have changed and it’s legal now in many states, should these people be expunged? Law enforcement officers have spent countless hours chasing down people with plants that can now be bought at a your local dispensary. Is it comical, ironic, or perhaps tragic?
#3. Man on Wire
Philippe Petit (what a badass name) was a fearless French high-walker who famously traversed the Twin Towers with no safety rope. This has nothing to do with 9/11 and documents Philippes story, from his childhood passion of the tightrope to the series of events leading up to the ‘epic walk.’ The stunt was illegal, of course, but I loved how Philippe’s crew all banded together to sneak into the tower and to make it a reality. I teared up a bit towards the end. P.S. There was a movie made about this which I don’t recommend, and the documentary is much better.
Questions to ponder before and after watching: What do we make of entertainers who risk their lives? Do we see them as heroes, or are their efforts misguided? And do we have a responsibility to improve, even mandate their safety, or do we give them the freedom to hurt themselves?
#4. Wild Wild Country
Rajneesh (also knowns as Osho) was a Indian guru back in the 70’s that started a spiritual movement that spread from India to a small town in Oregon — ‘twas quite the surprise to the retired Christian community living nearby! Thousands of followers from around the US and the world joined in building a massive commune, at one point recruiting over 3,000 homeless people. Members were encouraged to donate large sums of money, get sterilized and have abortions. They also preached open love, meditation, and tried to spread their influence across the state. The story is full of twists and turns so I won’t give too much away, and while Osho is dead and his 92 Rolls Royces have been sold (yes, you read that correctly), his teachings live on all over the world.
Questions to ponder before and after watching: Can we accept new religions into a country; at what point does the mere presence of a new non Christian religion become a threat to national security? Is it an issue of scale, specific belief, or as simple as “us vs. them,” and if it is, what’s at stake? Do we turn a blind eye to our own dogma?
#5. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
Richard Feynman is heralded as one of the greatest physicists of our time and a master storyteller that had a gift for simplifying the complicated language of physics in layman’s terms. He was called upon to work on the Manhattan Project during WWII where he made big contributions, but as witness to the dropping of the atomic bombs and the immense loss of life, it left him psychologically scarred for years. Feynman emerged stronger, though, and spent the rest of his life contributing to research, teaching and inspiring those around him to foster an inquisitive mind.
Questions to ponder: Feynman was a master of asking “why” and acknowledged the great difficulty we have in answering this open-ended question. Here’s a fun exercise: next time you’re in a rut or struggling, ask “why,” then follow that line of thinking as far as you can possibly go (asking why multiple times).
#6 Becoming Warren Buffett
Buffet didn’t get accepted into Harvard, so he reached out to the author of the Intelligent Investor, who happened to be a professor at Columbia University, and was admitted into the school. It pays to take risks. He’s a “90 billion dollar average Joe” and one of the most respected investors in America, and although I am critical of his eating habits (Egg Mcmuffins), he is unapologetically himself, inquisitive, and has always loved investing. Berkshire Hathaway is a holding company and owns 70+ companies and Buffett’s net worth doubled since the documentary was made. He’s promised to give away 99% of his fortune to the Gates Foundation, so far he’s donated $35 billion.
Questions to ponder: Buffet notoriously spends most of his day reading and analyzing what he reads. He does so with purpose, of course (investing). What if we decided to read, say, 3 hours a day, for 1 month, with purpose to learn about a topic?
#7 Banana Land: Blood, Bullets and Poison
Most apples are grown in the US but cost twice as much as bananas, which are imported from Central America. How did they get to be so cheap? There’s a surprising, dark side that’s still going on today, from exploited labor, pesticides that cause sterility, corporate-sponsored violence, and political corruption that lies behind the curtain of America’s favorite fruit. You’ll never look at a banana in the same way again.
Questions to ponder: Government regulations don’t often account for what goes on outside of country borders. How do we know where our food comes from and what went into getting it on our dinner plate? Do we care?
#8. Six Degrees of Separation
This was popularized by a parlor game where randomly selected actors were able to connect each other to Kevin Bacon in under 6 steps (so-and-so was in this movie who was in a movie with Kevin Bacon). Hence the popular phrase “6 degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Of course, this phenomenon, called the “small-world effect” has nothing to do with Mr. Bacon, but it does have real mathematical significance (network theory/power of the hubs). According to a report by Facebook last year, the 1.6 billion active users have an average of 4.5 degrees of separation.
Questions to ponder: Is there somebody that you’ve always wanted to contact — perhaps a celebrity, a potential mentor, or old friend — but haven’t because you think they’re hard to reach? Could you connect to someone that could be connected to someone that’s connected to them? Who could that person be? …What are you waiting for?
#9. The Secrets of Sugar
In a country where the rich are skinny and the fat are poor, this documentary explores the history and proliferation of a substance of mass destruction — sugar. While doctors and scientists don’t agree on all of the foods that could be harmful to us (there are so many variables), they’ve all pretty much identified sugar as a culprit in a number of our most common and life-threatening illnesses like high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and cancer, just to name a few. Most foods in US supermarkets — and many products globally now — have added sugar. If you’re looking for a slightly more in-depth/scientific perspective, check out this video.
Questions to ponder: Here are 56 different names for sugar that companies use to trick you. Next time you buy something at the store, check if it has added sugar. Check your cabinet now — how many of your products have sugar in them?
#10. Superhuman: Iceman
Wim Hoff has taken the world by storm…or, more accurately, by ice. Wim likes to climb ice-capped mountains shirtless, run marathons in Alaska wearing only shorts, and swim under icy lakes in Poland until his retinas freeze. He popularized the ice-bath and an immune-boosting breathing technique (which I practice regularly). Getting out of our comfort zone isn’t just about stepping into new social situations, it’s about the physical ones, too. The solution seems almost too simple…Submerge ourselves in an ice bath. It’s no surprise that entrepreneurs, who are always looking for new ways to reduce stress and boost creativity, are catching on.
Questions to ponder: We evolved in harsh winters and hot summers. What happens when we take these stressors away, and replace them with our warm clothes and unchanging, comfortable temperature-controlled buildings?
#11. The Third Industrial Revolution
The first industrial revolution was the advent of steam engines, railroads, advances in machinery and factories.The second industrial revolution was spurred by cars, telephones, faster transportation networks and eventually the internet. The third industrial revolution goes something like this: Rather than have centralized power plants and grids (both fossil and renewable), it makes more sense to have a decentralized power grid. Every house and every building would have their own solar panels/renewable energy; each building thus effectively turns into its own little power plant.
Questions to ponder: If America doesn’t belong to Americans, France to the French, and Netherlands to the Dutch, then who does it belong to? What are the environmental, political and economic repercussions of another 1+ billion people/consumers joining the global middle class?
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