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Health

5 must-watch documentaries about health

Still from Our Curse, dir. Tomasz Sliwinski

Global Citizen's recent month-long focus on health got me thinking: What are some memorable documentary films that fall under the umbrella of health? 

(As you may recall, two of my favorite pastimes are, one, watching documentaries and, two, compiling lists of said documentaries.) 

Unsurprisingly, a topic as broad and universal as health has been fertile ground for some really phenomenal docs over the years. From epidemics to fast food to rare genetic conditions, documentary filmmakers have approached the theme from numerous angles and using countless storytelling techniques. 

The following five films are just the tip of the health-doc iceberg, but consider this list a good starting point if you're looking to see health from a new angle. (For more great health-related docs, I highly encourage you to check out my UK colleagues' recent reviews of the first-annual Global Health Film Festival in London.) 

1/ Supersize Me (2004)

Director: Morgan Spurlock | Where to watch: YouTube / Amazon / Google Play

Morgan Spurlock’s iconic fast-food exposé made a, shall we say, supersized impression on me when I saw it for the first time back in seventh-grade health class. Besides the obvious (namely, a lingering distrust of all things Big Mac), this film left me with newfound appreciation of the good things that can happen when documentary filmmakers turn the cameras on themselves. Spurlock filmed himself eating nothing but McDonald’s food for 30 days straight, and the results were predictably stomach-turning. Watch this doc if your healthy-eating habits need a pep talk. 

2/ How to Survive a Plague (2012)

Director: David France | Where to watch: YouTube / Amazon / Google Play

How to Survive a Plague is an Oscar-nominated deep-dive into one of the darkest chapters in the history of American public health: the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 90s. Using a masterful combination of archival footage and interviews, David France tells the story of how a determined group of activists demanded change at a time when most of the country was still paralyzed by fear and stigma. Equal parts inspiring and sobering, this is a must-watch doc for anyone interested the history of this past—and present—menace.

3/ Ericson and the Ebola Soccer Survivors (2015)

Director: Ben C. Solomon | Where to watch: New York Times

Over 11,000 people died during the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa. That’s a chilling number. But here’s a stat you tend to see less: Of the 28,000 or so people who were infected, around 16,000 actually survived. What must life after Ebola be like for them? This is the story of how one such survivor, Ericson, is piecing his life back together with a little help from the Beautiful Game (aka football aka soccer). This film packs an enormous emotional punch for a 12-minute piece thanks to some cinematic camerawork and inspired editing. Watch this doc if you need a reason to feel good about the human spirit. 

4/ Living in Emergency: Stories of Doctors Without Borders (2010)

Director: Mark Hopkins | Where to watch: Netflix

Since 1971, Doctors Without Borders (aka Médecins Sans Frontières) has been delivering essential health care to the war-torn corners of the world. The men and women of MSF regularly put their lives on the line in the service of others, a fact that was driven home in tragic fashion when one of the organization’s hospitals in Afghanistan was destroyed by an American-led bombardment last month. Living in Emergency offers an unprecedented, on-the-ground look at MSF, following four of its doctors as they work to deliver the best possible care in some of the worst scenarios imaginable. Watch this doc to find out what it’s like to be on the frontlines of humanitarian medicine. 

5/ Our Curse (2013)

Director: Tomasz Sliwinski | Where to watch: NYT Op-Docs

Few things in life are more heart-wrenching than the sight of a child suffering from a serious medical condition. Our Curse is about a child suffering from a serious medical condition. It follows that the film is tough to watch. But that doesn’t mean you should skip it—on the contrary, this Oscar-nominated short doc is required viewing. When young Polish couple Tomasz and Magda learn their newborn son has a rare disorder and must rely on a machine to breath, they decide to document their experiences as a form of therapy. A somber sort of home video, Our Curse explores the uncertainty, frustration, and self-sacrifice that come with having a major medical condition in the family. It isn’t all bad news, though—the film’s upbeat ending might leave you wondering if the couple’s “curse” may, in fact, be a blessing in disguise. Watch this doc if you've ever wondered how families cope with life-threatening illness. 


Have any of these films inspired you personally? Know of a great health-related doc that belongs on this list? Let me know in the comments section or on Facebook!