The Reel World: Best documentaries of 2021

Forget the Oscars, it’s Video Librarian’s Best Documentaries of 2021! Ok, so maybe this doesn’t have the same glitz and glam of the Academy Awards, but this hotly anticipated list (at least by librarians) captures the best, most intriguing documentaries released in 2021. 

From thought-provoking films that explore contemporary social issues to celebrations of creative legends, these documentaries artfully educate while they entertain. Learn about the perils of fast fashion. Marvel at jazz legend Billie Holliday. Think twice about your use of plastic.  

With so many fascinating subjects, there is sure to be a documentary to pique your interest. Here are a few of my favorites that made the list.

Sisters Rising

The statistics at the beginning of Sisters Rising are chilling. Four out of 5 Native American women experience violence. One out 3 will be raped. Sisters Rising explores the faces and stories behind thesistersrising.jpeg numbers. Six native women – a lawyer, police officer, self-defense instructor and three advocates – share their personal stories as witnesses to and victims of violence and sexual assault. A 4-year-old watches in terror as her mother is beaten on the head with a gun by her stepfather. A young girl witnesses her younger sister’s friend being raped. Young men from off the reservation stalk teenage girls.

These powerful stories illustrate how Native women are sexualized and stereotyped. Often the perpetrators are never prosecuted because tribal governments don’t have jurisdiction. “Put us on the endangered species list” one woman bitterly said. After watching Sisters Rising, I share her outrage. 

Rebuilding Paradise 

In November 2018 the fast-moving Camp Fire roared through Paradise, California killing 85 people and leveling a town once considered worthy of its name. In Rebuilding Paradise, director Ron Howard follows the displaced residents of Paradise as they struggle to rebuild their town and their lives. Interspersed with truly terrifying footage of the fire (my heart was pounding!), residents express sorrow, trauma, and frustration as they face the mammoth task of not just restoring burned houses and businesses but a way of life.

Can the town survive with chemicals leached in the ground, broken infrastructure, and the on-going threat of wildfires and climate change? Some of the residents featured choose to leave. However, there are plenty of feel-good scenes of parades and festivals, cheering high school graduates, and residents rebuilding homes to give you hope Paradise will endure. 

Weed the People

When your child has cancer “the rule book goes out the window” one mom explains in the heart-tugging documentary Weed the People. The film follows five families as they make the decision to use cannabis oil as an adjunct to, or in some cases as an alternative to, traditional chemotherapy. Because the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance, research and regulation on medical marijuana is limited. At great expense, the families must procure the oil, trust that what they get really is cannabis oil, and figure out the proper dosage.

The real power of this documentary lies in the kids themselves. An adorable toddler with brain tumors survives and thrives. A young teen, absolutely gutted by chemotherapy, makes a miraculous transformation. Weed the People isn’t a balanced look at the pros and cons of medical marijuana, but rather a passionate plea for marijuana to have a place in mainstream medicine. 

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Constant reader, book selector, shameless promoter of good reads - these are just a few of the things I do as a Collection Development Professional. I love sharing the hidden gems in our nonfiction collection!