5 Great Documentaries About The Future (& 5 About The Past)

Documentaries are a trove of information, investigation, and intriguing real-life stories. While sometimes you might be in the mood for an adventure into the fictional universe, other times you might be looking for a nonfiction examination of the world. There are a number of documentaries available to stream about the future and the past, looking at events all around the world.

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It’s hard to say what the future will look like, but there are some compelling documentaries that have an educated prediction based on the practices of the present. Similarly, a lot of our present can be explained by the events of the past. Here are some powerful documentaries to stream about the future and about the past.

10 Future: The Mars Generation

The Mars Generation is a Netflix documentary following teens at NASA Space Camp and discusses the potential future of pursuing life on Mars. The film juxtaposes the younger generation of student astronauts possessing a deep passion for space travel with an older generation of experts who’ve witnessed NASA’s long journey to today.

At the core of the film is a discussion of what will be required to explore Mars in the near future, which is a particularly topical conversation of the future given the increasing attention to Mars as “the next destination.” The Mars Generation first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and is currently available to stream on Netflix.

9 Past: The Pixar Story

As the title suggests, The Pixar Story is a documentary that chronicles the past and present of Pixar Animation Studios. The documentary features interviews from Tim Allen and Tom Hanks, who voiced Buzz Lightyear and Woody in Toy Story, as well as Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company; Steve Jobs and John Lasseter, Pixar co-founders; and George Lucas of Lucasfilm.

The documentary is an inspiring and motivational story that gives an insightful peek into the beginnings of the studio that made some of the world’s first and most beloved animations.

8 Future: A Plastic Ocean

A Plastic Ocean is an environmental film that documents the issue of plastics littering the world’s oceans and lethally harming sea life. The documentary follows journalist Craig Leeson and diver Tanya Streeter, who go around the world to examine the plastic problem in international oceans and coastal cities where plastic littering is most severe, at one point even creating villages of plastic floating on the ocean.

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This documentary is a call to action about the future of the ocean. It shows the potential direction of pollution single-use plastics could lead to. There is also an optimistic side, though, as more and more of the world is moving away from single-use plastics as consumers demand sustainable alternatives. This documentary shows this could make the difference between protecting sea life and killing it.

7 Past: The Square

This is a 2013 documentary by Jehane Noujaim following the events of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 (also known as the 25 January Revolution) that took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won three Emmy awards for “Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming,” “Outstanding Directing for Nonfiction Programming,” and “Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming.” 

The documentary features interviews with Egyptians on the ground at the protest and newsreels of a watching world. The end of the documentary also provides political context of events following the completion of filming which helps catch viewers up to speed with the impact of the events shown on camera.

6 Future: Capital in the 21st Century

The title card for Capital in the 21st Century

Capital in the 21st Century is based on economist Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name. The documentary features a series of interviews with economists and historians including Piketty himself discussing the growing wealth gap between the working middle class and the upper class.

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One of the most interesting parts of the documentary is the consideration that the next century may be moving in a direction not much different from that of the 18th and 19th centuries. In its examination of the future, the documentary examines the past. For those interested in economics (and who might not be too keen on reading Piketty’s 696-page book), this documentary is worth a watch.

5 Past: I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Raoul Peck, is based on author James Baldwin’s memoir Remember This House, which is his unfinished manuscript of notes and letters in the 1970s reflecting on civil rights leaders Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers. This is an important documentary to watch, as it is an examination of a point in the past that is still poignantly relevant in the present.

The film is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and balances an observation of American history and personal biography through Baldwin’s experiences. The documentary was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2016 and won the BAFTA for Best Documentary. 

4 Future: The Social Dilemma

2020 docudrama The Social Dilemma is a foreboding film about the future of addictive social media. It examines the impact of social media on mental health and politics, particularly as social media is a breeding ground for conspiracy theories. The film features snippets of reenactments layered together with interviews with former tech executives and engineers who have worked at companies like Facebook and Google. 

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The film comments on the uncertain future that social media sets up as it becomes an integral part of life in an increasingly digitizing world. The documentary first premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and was directed by Jeff Orlowski, who also directed Emmy winners Chasing Coral and Chasing Ice.

3 Past: Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan

Age of Samurai: Battle for Japan is a 2021 docuseries on Netflix that examines the feudal period in Japan between 1551 and 1616. The show weaves together reenactments in Japanese with interviews and commentaries from historians about the samurai and warlords clashing during the Sengoku Period of the warring states. 

Those interested in Japanese history and its military history may find this show interesting as it goes in-depth into a specific period of the country’s development, particularly when Oda Nobunaga rises to control and fights to unify Japan.

2 Future: Chasing Coral

Chasing Coral is an environmental documentary featuring beautiful shots of coral reefs around the world, particularly the Great Barrier Reef, and the harrowing future of their deadly bleaching. The film brings together a team of divers and scientists as they capture on camera the worldwide bleaching event destroying coral under the sea, turning their colors from a healthy vibrance to a skeletal white.

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Chasing Coral is a poignant film about what the world could look like — for better or for worse. It’s an inspiring and motivational climate action piece that grants a beautiful look underwater that is rare to see. The film from Jeff Orlowski is currently available to stream on Netflix.

1 Past: The Times of Harvey Milk

This 1984 documentary follows the life of San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor, Harvey Milk. The film chronicles his humble beginnings as a local activist traversing the city neighborhoods to an iconic political figure.

It’s an inspiring portrait of Milk and the historic city of San Francisco, featuring interviews and archival footage of Milk himself and colleagues Diane Feinstein and George Moscone. In fact, the film opens rather poignantly and shockingly with archival footage of Feinstein announcing Milk’s and Moscone’s tragic assassination. The documentary received the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1985 and also won the Special Jury Prize at the first-ever Sundance Film Festival.

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