15 transformational documentaries LGBTQI+ folk can appreciate

Essy Knopf gay documentary coronavirus lockdown
Reading time: 8 minutes

When I originally wrote this list, I was in the midst of the first coronavirus lockdown, stuck at home with not a whole lot to do.

The world has changed somewhat since then, but I believe these films remain as interesting and important as ever.

And while my selection isn’t exactly targeted at LGBTQI+ folk, many of these films have queer themes and subject matter.

All of them made the cut for a single reason: they each have the potential to help us become a little more thoughtful, informed, and empathetic.

So if you’re on a journey towards self-betterment, I’m sure you’ll find something of interest in the following list.

15. Touching the Void (2003)

A docudrama based on the book of the same name by climber Joe Simpson, Touching the Void is about his and Simon Yates’ ill-fated 1985 climb in the Peruvian Andes.

While the pair succeed in their quest to climb a 20,814 ft mountain, the trip quickly goes awry after Simpson breaks a leg mid-descent.

As severe weather bears down on them, Yates is forced to sever his friend’s rope, sending him plummeting to the bottom of a cliff.

What follows is a belief-defying tale of endurance that will leave even the most seasoned thriller viewer with lead in their stomach, right up to the unexpected finish.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, iTunes

14. Encounters at the End of the World (2007)

Encounters at the End of the World is a mesmerizing look at the characters and creatures who choose to call Antarctica home.

The documentary perfectly embodies the sensibilities of German filmmaker-cum-philosopher Werner Herzog, who has made a career of chasing seemingly impossible film projects, often about figures bent on achieving impossible dreams of their own.

Herzog, who shot the entire film with a crew of two (counting himself), invites viewers to revel in the wonders and curiosities on the frontiers of human civilization in and around McMurdo Station.

Over the course of Encounters, you’ll meet scientists who listen to ice for the alien calls of seals, a deranged penguin toddling inland towards a solitary death, and a physicist who draws parallels between spirits and subatomic neutrino particles.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

13. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

BAFTA-nominated They Shall Not Grow Old is a World War I documentary by a giant of cinematic craftsmanship, Peter Jackson.

The pioneering director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy has painstakingly restored and colorized archival footage while adding sound effects and voice acting under the stewardship of professional lipreaders.

Jackson sutures together more than 200 firsthand accounts by British veterans, offering new insight into the horrors and hardships of trench warfare.

They Shall Not Grow Old is a technical triumph that manages at various times to be buoyant, sobering, and deeply moving.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Amazon, Vudu, YouTube

12. The Biggest Little Farm (2018)

The Biggest Little Farm chronicles American wildlife photographer John Chester and wife Molly’s almost ten-year attempt to construct a sustainable farm from the soil up.

The effort, inspired by a promise to one very loveable dog, plays out like a modern Robinson Crusoe. Chester and Molly are forced to adapt and improvise to the ever-changing demands of revitalizing a former orchard.

Along the way, they learn to harness rather than battle nature to create their own little patch of paradise. The film teams with an effervescent spirit of wonder, human ingenuity and hope. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

11. Project Nim (2011)

Project Nim follows a groundbreaking scientific endeavor to teach American Sign Language to a chimpanzee.

Researchers’ efforts to socialize and train the eponymous “Nim Chimpsky” begin with his adoption by a human family.

From the moment we learn Nim’s human mother chose to breastfeed him, however, we see the road of good intentions and its inevitable outcome.

The result is as much a tale of hubris as it is of humanity’s mercurial – and often unwitting – capacity for cruelty.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube

10. Shirkers (2018)

Shirkers is an intimate whydoneit about an act of interference that derailed the promising career of a young Singaporean director.

It was the summer of 1992 and Sandi Tan and friends had set off to film Tan’s debut feature under the guidance of mentor and teller-of-tall-tales Georges Cardona.

Afterward, Tan charged Cardona with processing the raw footage, only for Cardona – who had shepherded the film from its inception – to vanish.

Almost 20 years later, Tan was able to recover all of her lost reels, sans audio. She uses the botched film as a springboard for exploring Cardona’s motives and true identity.

Shirkers is a wistful journey through the hypersaturated visual landscape of a changing Singapore, infused with a longing for a past lost and found, and a future that could have been. 

Where to watch: Netflix

9. Deep Water (2006)

How far are you willing to go in the name of pride?

This question underscores amateur yachtsman Donald Crowhurst’s single-handed race around the world for the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (of no relationship to the annual television awards ceremony).

The film charters the family man’s battle against the odds to survive boat troubles, wild weather, and, ultimately, madness.

With Crowhurst hopelessly behind and his reputation hanging in the balance, he decides to put off radioing for help in favor of falsifying his yacht’s positions in his logbook.

Crowhurst’s final accounts of battles with cosmic beings elevate this story to the level of tragic parable, serving as a warning to all those who aspire to the heights of greatness, unaware of the fall that may very well follow.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

8. Green Porno (2008)

Delightfully camp and playfully ludicrous, Green Porno is the nature documentary at its unsexiest.

Written, directed, and hosted by Italian-American actress Isabella Rossellini, best known for her roles in Blue Velvet (1986) and Death Becomes Her (1992), Green Porno technically isn’t a feature film, but rather a series of shorts.

In each episode, Rossellini dons cardboard and rubber-foam animal costumes to explain and enact usually bizarre, sometimes grotesque, and occasionally morbid mating rituals.

While her approach is essentially edutainment, the third season leans more into activism, highlighting the danger commercial fishing poses for marine life.

Green Porno is an unexpected delight, guaranteed to make you first cringe – then laugh.

Where to watch: YouTube (free)

7. Won’t You Be My Neighbour (2018)

More than a few of us long for the kind of father figure that was American television personality, Fred Rogers.

The host of the preschool TV series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran for a respectable 33 years, the soft-spoken Rogers became a mainstay of children’s television, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts of countless viewers.

Modeling a distinct brand of openhearted kindness, Rogers served as a gentle counter to popular notions of masculinity.

Won’t You Be My Neighbour explores how the Presbyterian minister treated his show as a shelter for young minds, free from the barbs of insensitivity, violence, hatred, prejudice, and adult agendas.

The documentary casts the late Rogers as a kind of luminary, and perhaps rightfully so; the lessons he taught and the hope he bestowed continue to resonate today. 

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, HBO Now, Vudu, YouTube

6. Last Train Home (2009)

Most gay men know intimately the pain of having to separate from their families, a choice that is often as much a product of choice as circumstance. It is a pain shared by the protagonist of Last Train Home, rebellious teenager Qin.

Raised by her grandparents and saddled with the expectations of workaholic parents who are, for all intents and purposes, strangers, Qin decides to cast off the yoke of their dreams of a better life through education.

Her decision is as much motivated by a desire for financial independence as it is a breakdown in familial understanding and empathy.

Qin’s story is tinged with bitterness, heartbreak, and a sense of loss that is certain to hit home for many a queer viewer.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Tubi (free)

5. Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017)

Academy Award-nominated psychological horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) was a camp classic about two ex-actress siblings, played by Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, locked in a battle of wills.

Echoes of this toxic family dynamic can be found in the relationship between the subjects of Mommy Dead and Dearest, Gypsy Rose Blanchard, and mother Dee Dee.

For years Dee Dee perpetuated lies about her daughter’s age, fabricating claims she suffered from numerous disabilities and chronic illnesses.

Dee Dee subjected Gypsy to physical and psychological abuse while foisting upon her a battery of unnecessary surgeries and medications.

Towards the end, Gypsy Made plans to escape from her life of captivity which culminated in a decision to kill Dee Dee with the help of a secret online boyfriend, Nicholas Godejohn.

Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee’s story is so unbelievable you could be forgiven for dismissing it as the stuff of schlock horror fiction.

It is indeed a story with few precedents, and yet its theme of toxic child-parent relationships is one many gay men are well acquainted with.

Where to watch: Google Play, HBO Now, YouTube, Vudu

4. Holy Hell (2016)

Holy Hell is a fly-on-the-wall account of the Buddhafield cult directed by Will Allen, a gay man who sought refuge beneath the ring of yoga master and cult leader Jaime Gomez.

Leveraging footage from his time as the cult’s videographer and chief propagandist from the mid-80s onwards, Allen depicts the cult’s rise under the influence of the enigmatic and increasingly paranoid Gomez.

He details the alleged control and sexual abuse inflicted by Gomez on male followers.

Gomez, a self-proclaimed “God” with a penchant for plastic surgery, swimming briefs, and eyeliner, is eventually unmasked as a Venezuelan actor and porn star.

Holy Hell functions as a warning that the comfort and safety offered by “gurus” may be little more than false promises.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

3. Southern Comfort (2001)

Southern Comfort follows the final year of the life of trans man Robert Eads. Eads is succumbing to ovarian cancer. It is an illness, he tells us, that might have been averted had numerous doctors not refused him treatment until it was too late.

The film is not a grim march towards death, but a poignant portrait of a man whom society has failed. Southern Comfort moves at a meditative gait that seems to capture as much the spirit of its idyllic setting of rural Georgia as it does its subject.

Eads spends his last days celebrating a close bond with his “chosen” family while enduring a painful visit from the biological one that has rejected his new gender identity.

Yet Eads does not appear to harbor hatred for those who chose politics and self-interest above professional and familial duty.

Rather, he seems to emerge not torn by the injustice, but, rather, transfigured.

Where to watch: Tubi (free)

2. Paris is Burning (1990)

Before there was the award-winning FX show Pose, there was Paris is Burning.

This landmark documentary offers a snapshot of the gloriously queer underground ball subculture, in which self-fashioned models and performers take to improvised catwalks to compete for trophies and prizes.

Ball culture we learn was as much an exercise in gender and social class satire as it was empowerment, offering both refuge and a platform for creative talent within marginalized communities.

Paris is Burning serves as a celebration of its subjects’ resilience in the face of social opposition. It is also a historical document of an important cultural movement that gave rise to the likes of voguing. Mandatory viewing for all thoughtful gays.

Where to watch: Previously available on Netflix – check Google

1. How to Survive a Plague (2012)

The AIDS epidemic sparked mass panic of the likes we have only since seen with the rise of the coronavirus. It led to the deaths of millions from the late 80s onwards and fuelled the widespread stigmatization of gay men.

Academy Award-winning documentary How to Survive a Plague is directed by David France, a journalist who provided frontline coverage of the outbreak from the very beginning.

It covers activists’ battles with the US Food and Drug Administration to expedite the approval of often toxic, but possibly life-saving drugs.

One of the fruits of their tireless labor is the antiretroviral drug Truvada; a hard-won privilege often taken for granted by gay men today.

How to Survive a Plague for that reason serves as a timely reminder of our communities’ many successes on the road to secure our rights – and of the distance that still remains to be covered.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube

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