If you are fortunate to have spare time as the world ends nowadays, boredom is quite possibly your greatest enemy. There is nothing to do and it’s horrible and everything sucks. However, if you are anything like me and take solace in random bits of obscure information and fun facts, then look no further. I have a solution for your nerd self, you nerd. What better way to pass the time during this unprecedented historical event than to learn more about the world around us. Thus, I present to you the eleven weirdest and best documentaries I have watched over the last month and a half, and hope you will be as intrigued as I am. Oh, and they’re all free, because money doesn’t exist anymore and neither do days of the week.
I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. The film follows poet Simon Armitage through the English countryside of Lancashire, where the witch trial of Pendle Hill left its mark on British history that has lasted 400 years. In 1612, a nine-year-old girl testified against her entire family, alleging they were all guilty of witchcraft. As a result, her whole family was executed. And not long after, the child found herself in the same predicament as the family she once condemned. Chilling and thought-provoking, this documentary is beautifully narrated and illustrated, with a mix of sketched figures and the English rolling hills as its backdrop. It’s suspenseful and disturbing, while still being educational on the legal practices of the time and lending insight into the continuity of human fear.
TW: witches, mentions of abuse
This doc is one out of a series called Beyond Beauty, produced by i-D and hosted by tattoo artist and activist Grace Neutral. From K-pop influencers to gang culture to Korea’s underground tattoo industry, she explores the beauty world and how young people are challenging traditions of self expression in Seoul. It’s beautifully shot and produced, but just because it’s slick doesn’t mean it has no heart. This film is emotional, raw, and really resonated with me. It’s about people wanting the freedom to look and feel how they want, and to have agency over their own bodies while coming to terms with the beauty standards that we stare in the face everyday. The entire series is brilliant, but this episode is my favourite.
This is quite possibly my favourite topic of all time; who doesn’t love ancient civilizations that boasted amazing feats of engineering, literature and medicine while also just being totally cool? Narrated by archaeologist from the British Museum, Dr. Jago Cooper, it tells the story of the Chachapoya people of the Peruvian Andes, an absolutely fascinating culture with vastly unique traits who thrived for 500 years before being conquered by the Inca shortly before Spanish conquest. It can be really cheesy at times, and yeah, the white guy who narrates is not ideal, but it does its best to be respectful and emphasize the importance of this culture’s influence on modern South America alongside the more talked-about Inca and Maya civilizations. I’ll say one thing and one thing only: perfectly square tomb chambers cut into the sides of sheer cliffs that have lasted more than a thousand years. Interested yet? Yeah, I thought so.
TW: brief images of skeletons/mummies
This one had me glued to the screen the whole way through. Filmed from the perspective of four girls and women in Afghanistan, this documentary focuses on the controversial tradition of Bacha Posh, or dressing as a boy. As women’s rights are severely restricted, many families who have a shortage in men will appoint one of their daughters to fill the role in the interim. Some bacha posh become accustomed to the freedoms afforded to them, and never revert back to their female role, though most do. Each of the four people explored in this film have a different perspective on their positions as bacha posh, and it comes as a fascinating analysis of gender identity, societal roles, freedom and sexuality as means of survival and self expression, in a very different context than most Americans are used to. This was amazing to watch and get a tiny glimpse into this aspect of Afghan culture, and I hope to do more research on it in the future.
TW: mentions of transphobia and sexism
Caitlyn Doughty, author of the book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, is a mortician with her own establishment in LA. She is the founder of the Order of the Good Death, an organization of death professionals aiming to educate a “death-phobic” America on the complexity of death and its cultural poignancy around the world. She is also hilarious and really knows what she is talking about. I became fascinated with her mini-documentary videos on topics like the Death Zone on Everest and one of her “Iconic Corpse” videos on Rasputin’s holy ding dong (more on that later). Whether you want to know about in-corruption in the Catholic church or how embalming works or how to talk about death healthily, her channel is an awesome place to look. She has really changed my perspective on the concept of death within the US, and is currently doing a series on the ethics of burial practices during COVID-19, which is very pertinent. In short, dead people equals cool stuff.
TW: death, various ways of dying, and treatment of the dead
Headed up by Derek Muller, an Australian-Canadian filmmaker and inventor, this channel has everything you ever wanted to know about science…and stuff. I don’t understand most of it, but waterproof sand and space explosions and real jet packs are pretty cool. His presentation is super educational, while trying to keep things accessible and easy to comprehend. He also lights things on fire. A lot. So, that’s fun.
History Cold Case is one of my favourite archaeology series, and for good reason. It’s led by a team of women who are experts in their field, and it has a much less clinical feel than most documentaries about examining dead bodies. These scientists actually try to treat the dead they are examining and researching as people, and that is never more apparent than in this episode. A child’s mummy is explored, with wax blood vessels and a missing skull cap. The scientists do their best to piece together who this child could have been, why he died and what he would have looked like, while also delving into heavy topics like Victorian grave robbing, murder and the disecting of bodies for medical purposes. It’s a heartfelt analysis of data and a disturbing but ultimately fruitful time in medical history, and it’s fascinating.
TW: mentions of child abuse, medical malpractice and desecration of the dead
All I’m going to say about this one is that Rasputin was a crazy son of a bitch, basically ran Russia as a dirt poor monk, was impossible to kill and had his dismembered genitalia stolen multiple times as it was seen as a holy relic. If that’s not interesting, I don’t know what is. Dig in, nerds.
TW: mentions of WWI, murder, and sexual promiscuity
This one knocked my socks off. Agafia Lykov is a Russian hermit who has been living in the wilds of Siberia alone for the last 26 years, and she is a really…interesting person, for lack of a better descriptor. She is part of a sect of Christianity known as the Old Believers, who split from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17th century. In the 1930s, her family travelled to remote Siberia to avoid persecution and would remain there to this day, as she is the last surviving member. The family was discovered in the late 70’s by a group of geologists and looked as if they had stepped out of a time machine, with homespun clothes and 19th century tools. They were completely self-sufficient and deeply religious. This doc tells the story of this extraordinary woman and her family, as well as the insane circumstances in which she has survived all this time.
TW: brief mentions of transphobia, homophobia, disease and incest
If anyone likes fashion history, sewing, costumes or incredibly eloquent commentary on historical inaccuracy, then this is the channel for you. Bernadette makes reproductions of historical garments in original practice–the way they would have been made the first time–and it doesn’t sound cool, but it is. It really fucking is. The history of garment construction makes my little crafty heart sing, and she also has a healthy collection of educated roasts on fashion ethics, ripping off craftspeople and corsetry. It’s my heaven. Also, the comment section has a lot of gems.
TW: sass and lots of it
If Bernadette is your friendly neighborhood sassy seamstress, then Julian Baumgartner is her art conservationist counterpart. You’d think it’d be less than interesting to watch a man cleaning an old painting and talking about exactly what glue was used to adhere those patches, but I promise you it’s worth a try. It’s satisfying, entertaining and incredibly gratifying to watch, and before long you’ll be watching a 40 minute video on the chemistry of literal paint drying, eating goldfish and nodding along as the master chastises the use of rabbit skin glue and unnecessary metal backing put in by the previous conservator. It’s really weird, but it works, and this happens to be my favourite of his docs. Comment section is also a must-see for this one.
TW: also sass and lots of it