Susan Riley | May 2020

10 Creative Documentaries to Binge this Summer (2020)

During this time of COVID-19, lots of us are scrolling our screens looking for things to watch. And if you’re trying to also learn something, documentaries are usually a good bet.

I’m a big fan of well-designed stories, so documentaries and docu-series are often my go-to category when surfing the channels. Over the past few months, I’ve watched quite a few. So I’ve compiled a list of my favorites (so far) that are good for binging yourself or could be used as part of a lesson with your students.

A word of caution if you’re using any of these with students: preview the whole thing first. And even then, only use a clip that pertains to the topic you’re working on. An excellent resource for lesson planning with films in mind is Teach with Movies.  This will help you discover even more films than on this list and give you lessons that correspond with the major themes of each film.

Criteria for Documentary Selection

There are lots of great documentaries out there, so how did these 10 make the cut? I have a few pieces of criteria that each film needs to meet in order for me to recommend it:

  • Engaging Content

This seems obvious, but you would be amazed at how many documentaries are just plain boring. If the content is interesting and important, I’ll forgive a lot of other items (like a small-budget production value or even lower-quality audio).

  • Good Storytelling Process

This ties in with engaging content, but it’s not the same thing. Good storytelling is an art. There’s a natural journey that the filmmaker is taking you on and you need to feel that right from the beginning. The film should make you feel like you’ve traveled into a different space and continually open and close loops along the way.

  • Thoughtful Production

This is last on the list because it’s not a dealbreaker. You can have excellent production with beautiful imagery, masterful layering of music, and fantastic lighting and still not tell an interesting story.  But, if a documentary has the first two criteria as well as this last component, that helps it make the cut for this list.

The following 10 documentaries and series meet all 3 of these criteria. There are definitely ones that I have missed or that haven’t yet made it onto my radar. But if you’re ready to learn and be entertained this summer, these are a good start.

List of Creative Documentaries

Each of these documentaries focus on some element of creativity. Art, music, dance, and design are all emphasized in these films.

  1. Yarn (Independent) – This film “weaves together wool graffiti artists, circus performers, and structural designers into a visually-striking look at the women who are making a creative stance while building one of modern art’s hottest trends.”
  2. The Pixar Story (Netflix) – The iconic brand started from humble beginnings. Take a look at how this animation powerhouse came into its own.
  3. The 100 Years Show (Independent) – Cuban-American Carmen Herrera was 100 years old until her art was “discovered” by contemporaries this decade. Watch how she persevered her entire life to make the art she wants to create.
  4. Ballet Now (Hulu) – New York City Ballet’s Prima Ballerina Tiler Peck is working on creating a groundbreaking mashup performance and only has one week til showtime. Will she make it?
  5. More Art Upstairs (Amazon) – Kind of like American Idol for Artists. You’ll watch as 4 established artists compete in a Midwest competition and the audience votes on their work for a $500,000 prize.
  6. History 101 (Netflix) – At first glance, you’re probably wondering why a history film is on this list. But it’s the way history is told which makes this series so compelling. Through the use of infographics, this series puts historical events in a whole new context.
  7. Score: A Film Music Documentary (Amazon) – What happens when you turn the sound off on a film? It changes everything. Watch how film score composers bring stories to life.
  8. Abstract: The Art of Design (Netflix) – This series will draw you into the millions of possibilities that designers explore every day. It’s like watching innovation happen right before your eyes.
  9. How It’s Made (Hulu) – Speaking of innovation, this series invites you to see how everyday objects we take for granted are made in factories around the world.
  10. Chromatic (Amazon) – This series is one of my favorites because it features so many interesting, contemporary artists. There are so many ways to use each of these episodes in arts integration and STEAM lessons.

About the Author

Susan Riley is the founder and CEO of The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM. She focuses on teacher professional development in arts integration, STEAM, 21st century learning skills, and technology. She is also a published author and frequent presenter at national conferences on Arts Integration and STEAM education. Susan holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Music Education from the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ and a Master of Science in Education Administration from McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. She lives in Westminster, MD with her husband and daughter. Email Susan