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9 Documentaries That Will Open Your Eyes

Movies aren’t just about escapism. A compelling documentary can make you see the world in a new way and inspire social change. For today’s Design9, we’re highlighting some current favorites that we think everyone should see. Too busy to watch a full-length doc? No worries — this list has powerful short documentaries, too.

1. ‘Project 22′

Created by Medical Missions, a social enterprise that empowers veterans to serve their communities by leadership and example, “Project 22” is a feature-length film that follows two veterans on a cross-country journey to raise awareness of the high rate of suicide among veterans. Check out their website to find screenings or inquire about hosting one in your city, and learn more about the project from our feature on the veterans behind it.

2. ‘After My Garden Grows’

This short film by Oscar-winning documentarian Megan Mylan follows Monika, a rural Indian teen girl, who plants the seeds of her own independence by growing food to feed and support her family from a small rooftop garden. In less than 10 minutes, the film touches on issues like child brides, land rights and financial freedom.

3. ‘The Happy Movie’

“The Happy Movie,” winner of numerous independent film festival awards, takes viewers on a global quest to find the secrets to this sometimes elusive emotion. Enjoy a dose of science and real-world stories in this feature-length documentary available for rent and on Hulu.

4. ‘The Hunting Ground’

This documentary about rape culture on college campuses has shed light on institutional coverups and ignited change, from small-town colleges all the way to the White House. Since screening at Sundance, the movie has spurred legislation in California and New York that changes campus policies that protect and serve victims of rape and sexual assault. Watch on iTunes or check the film’s website for screenings at your local college campus.

5. ‘Vezo’

Documentaries about small, indigenous communities all over the world are a vital part of their survival. This short documentary looks at the devastating effects of overfishing on a coastal community in Madagascar that relies on the sea for its main source of food. With a mix of live-action footage and sand animation, the story shifts from dire to optimistic in a matter of minutes.

6. ‘Through A Lens Darkly

Thomas Allen Harris, director of this feature-length documentary, guides viewers through thousands of photographs of African Americans taken by African Americans. Harris’ narration, coupled with the images from his own family photo album and others from well-known photographers like Renee Cox and Gordon Parks, asks viewers to recognize how the injustices of the past, often seen only through the eyes of white photographers, have affected how African Americans see themselves today. It’s a call to action to change the current identity narrative.

7. ‘A Lot Like You

Filmmaker Eliaichi Kimaro points out that the more intimate and vulnerable the storytelling, the more universal the story can be. In this feature-length documentary, Kimaro journeys back to her father’s African village to fill in the gaps from her childhood in the U.S. and her parents’ life there and in Tanzania. Themes of mixed marriage, gender violence and cultural relativism will make you question your own identity and how your own story will play on for future generations.

8. ‘The Mask You Live In

According to documentary filmmaker Jennifer Siebel Newsom, we’re in the middle of a gender identity crisis, as boys and young men try to be themselves while still adhering to society’s definition of masculinity. Experts in science and education weigh in on this “boy crisis” and offer tactics to counter the pressures from parents, peers and supposed role models to be “real” men. Visit the film’s website for screenings and check out Newsom’s nonprofit, The Representation Project.

9. ‘Brooklyn Farmer

Like other documentaries on urban farming and our broken food system, “Brooklyn Farmer” introduces viewers to a band of like-minded growers determined to create a viable food business within the confines of one of the world’s most populated cities. This 27-minute film gives viewers a perspective on the possibilities (and challenges) of growing food in urban metropolises — in this case, New York City.

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