My version of “normal life” these days is not much like my old life, save for being in Seattle for a few months, catching up with friends, shopping at the same grocery markets, and driving the same streets. Other than that, it’s different in so many ways. Ironically, or perhaps just somewhat cliché, is that while I may be financially poorer by Western standards, I feel richer by life standards. Not in material wealth, but in mental, spiritual, and humanitarian wealth — in other words, the stuff that actually matters. From the time that I was able to share my plans about leaving my former job, selling my house and half of my stuff, and embarking on a journey of travel and giving back, people have been wonderfully supportive, and in many cases, say that they wish they could do the same. That it all seems so amazing, adventurous, and liberating. And it has been. But it would be disingenuous not to point out that this is hard. Really hard. I have my moments where I wonder if I’ve made the right choice, but those are brief and don’t last long, as I know that I have when I reflect back on the last year and a half and all that I’ve experienced in that time.
When you are cracked open, and turn your world upside down, your senses are heightened, and you begin to see, hear, feel, sense things that you haven’t before, or more importantly, that were always there, but your daily program drowned out. We get into our routines, our worlds get smaller, and we get comfortable. It’s not good or bad, it just happens. If we’re lucky, we live in an area that provides opportunity for learning and expanding our horizons, or we have access to tools to help get information. Just one form of this that I’ve always enjoyed is the documentary form of film. I’m a sucker for a really good and informative documentary, on any subject, but it’s particularly fantastic when it’s on topics that are really relevant in your life at the time. And I’ve seen some great ones lately that are worth sharing. All of these are available on Amazon, Netflix, or online, so no cable television access is required.
My current list of must-see documentaries:
13th is a documentary film by Ava DuVernay, who wrote and directed the film Selma. The film is titled after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which ended slavery, but as the documentary shows, oppression essentially just changes forms. Everyone should see this film, especially those who aren’t clear on the connection between civil oppression and mass incarceration, including the whole money-making aspect of it all. One of the many commentators in the film is Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer who dedicated much of his career to representing wrongfully convicted death row inmates which he wrote about in his book, Just Mercy. If this film doesn’t make you angry and uncomfortable, watch it as many times as it takes until it does. It should rattle you.
Inequality for All as told by Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary, and current professor at Berkeley. This film does a good job of unpacking the economics that have led to our current situation, and all the complicated factors, but in a way that is easy to understand. It also does a very good job of unpacking the narratives that we’ve been told, which ones hold up, and which ones are smoke-and-mirrors as part of increasing wealth for a select few. What I particularly appreciated is that one of the commentators is someone who acknowledges that he’s in that top 1%, and how he used to not only believe, but to propagate some of those narratives, which now he admits are just false, such as the whole notion of trickle down wealth. Wealthy business owners are not job creators, he contends, it’s consumers that are job creators. And the math proves it. This film is particularly relevant in our current socio-economic and political landscape.
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise on PBS, as part of a series called American Masters. Maya was one of my life heroes, and while I knew about some aspects of her life, most notably her writing and her work during the Civil Rights era, I learned so many other things about her, deepening my admiration. This woman really lived, and it was a full and incredible life. I had the privilege to attend a talk she gave many years ago, and it was a thrill — even from the very back of the auditorium, her spirit filled the space. She was truly a treasure, and it’s still hard to believe that she’s no longer here. I sometimes wonder what she would think of the current events, this twisted and tumultuous time in our history, and how it fits into the long arc of civil unrest of this country. I imagine that she’d speak eloquently, yet plainly, about the awakening, however painful it may seem, that will give Rise to a brighter future. And that we must continue to stand up for what is right, bringing light to the shadows.
Minimalism, a documentary about our materialistic culture from a couple of filmmakers that have embraced a minimalist lifestyle. Now this one really hit home for me, given my own journey into a less materialistic life. Other than my car, all of my material possessions fit completely within a 10′ x 10′ x 10′ storage unit (about 3 cubed meters for my international friends), with room to spare. And if anything, I have an urge to go through it and get rid of even more stuff. Percentage-wise, the largest number of boxes are books, and as a former literature major, that suits me just fine. I’ve learned that you really can get through life with very little in terms of material possessions, which nearly every other culture seems to understand so much better than ours. Minimalism isn’t about no consumption, it’s about mindful and responsible consumption. And in every case of each person profiled in the film, their lives improved. Worth a watch for sure.
Living On One Dollar is a documentary film about a couple of young filmmakers that decide to go see what it takes to live on a dollar a day for a couple of months in rural Guatemala. There are so many reasons that I enjoyed this film, from the personal connections that they make with the people, to the cultural immersion, to the humbling experiences and perspective that these young men gain in the process. We have such privilege and excess in the United States compared with so much of the rest of the world, and it’s not only good, but essential, to remind ourselves of that and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. If they even have shoes.
Shalam Neighbor by the same filmmakers as above, this time they go to live in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan for a month. Just wow. If you are not well-versed in the plight of refugees, from any country in any time in history, or even if you are, this is a must-see. This film focuses on the everyday human aspect of the refugee crisis. It’s one thing to read about the rolled-up and summarized version of this crisis, but it’s quite another to put faces and names to just some of those people, sharing the personal life stories of people that are fleeing their homeland in order to save their lives and the lives of their children. We’ve been brain-washed with this notion that an entire population of people in a certain area of the globe are suspect, all part of the fear narrative. This film is particular important given the current rhetoric in the United States about immigration and refugees, so please do yourself a huge favor and watch this film.
Requiem For the American Dream with Noam Chomsky, which is an intellectual journey, so this one may take more than one viewing to really absorb. It has some similarities to Inequality For All, but is a bit meatier, perhaps not surprising given the narrator. If you really want to understand our socio-economic landscape, or just learn something about what lead us to our current situation, put away all other distractions and dial into this film. In it, Chomsky lays out “10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power.” But wait, isn’t this the guy that has been accused of being anti-American for all his activism, going back to his opposition of the Vietnam War? Yes. And he hits that head on and why such labels are all part of the bigger playbook. This film was made in 2015, and is eerily prophetic considering what has happened since.
Not listed here are all the various animal documentaries and programs that I also have been watching, with a particular focus on those filmed in Africa, since I miss it so. But those are plentiful and something anyone can find easily, so I didn’t highlight them in this list. The ones I chose to highlight all have a theme of social awakening in various forms, from civil issues to socio-economic to humanitarian. Seems apropos in these times.
Enjoy the journey.