I watched 52 documentaries in 52 weeks and I am a changed woman.
Before I met Jonas, I hadn’t realised how little I knew about things in the world. The classic virgo that he is, Jonas becomes obsessed with information and really needs to know absolutely everything about everything. Thanks to my easy breezy nature, I’m not gonna lie to you, this personality difference has caused some tension in the past.
Because sometimes I just don’t care enough to continue learning, but then on the other hand, sometimes I am intrigued and excited at the new information and honestly can not believe I didn’t know this before.
The latter - feeling like I didn’t know anything - happens to me often. And when that happens I think it’s natural to feel a little embarrassed.
I have realised that traveling full time means you are constantly meeting new people from different walks of life. Some days you find yourself waiting in line next to security guards in Kuwait or you get talking to a hairdresser from Montreal who has a chronic illness or you move into a flat with a couple from Scotland who are investment bankers.
I was thinking about how some people have an endless wealth of knowledge on random things when an Instagram story from Australian actor @karinabanno popped up on my feed. She talked about how she too felt as though she had a lot to learn still, and had embarked on watching 52 documentaries in 52 weeks. She shared all of the documentaries she watched and I was instantly intrigued.
Documentaries are something that I love to consume, and seeing as I was feeling overwhelmed by my lack of knowledge I took this idea to Jonas to see if he wanted to do it too.
And that, my friends, is how 2020 was officially crowned the Year of the Documentary. (Luckily this all happened literally in the first week of January!)
The idea is simple: every week we will choose a documentary to watch. It doesn’t matter if we are particularly interested in the subject matter or not, and there’s no pressure on me to immediately learn more and become obsessed but Jonas can go and do that on his own. If we miss a week we will catch up the following week, or if we know we will miss a week we will watch an extra the week before. If we happen to be apart for weeks at a time we will watch the documentaries separately and discuss later.
I wrote those opening paragraphs on January 27th 2020 waiting for Jonas to finish his street show and come home with pizza so we could settle in to watch documentary number five.
And now it is January 1st 2021. Safe to say 27th-Jan-2020-Jess had NO FRIKEN IDEA wtf 2020 was going to look like… But alas. We survived. We persevered. And we completed the 52 documentaries in 52 weeks challenge. Perhaps the structure of this project helped throughout the shit show of a year, but I’m excited to report:
My life has been significantly changed.
I was inspired to learn more about journalism, dig deeper into topics I didn’t realise I cared about, and learnt about a whole variety of subjects.
I became 100% obsessed.
...and I’m so obsessed that I’m going to keep going! We have decided to continue this practice through 2021 as well. I wish I could eloquently describe what it’s been like to commit to this in the most destructive year I have lived through, but I’m a little lost for words. It’s changed me! I feel smarter and more worldly! I am actually so obsessed with documentaries now maybe I want to make them or something!?
Alright, so, here’s the list. I’m going to share it with you now, categorised month by month, the 52 documentaries Jonas and I watched this year and a little something we took away from some of them.
Please note: Extra Documentaries/Docuseries refer to docos/docuseries that I watched on my own without Jonas, or are short documentaries, or were more reality TV entertainment (ie Tiger King. As in that only applies to Tiger King lol) that my heart needed to include in the list. I make the rules.
The Lost Pyramid Yes Theory / Youtube channel
We started with an easy to consume documentary from the Yes Theory team and a bunch of other YouTubers. Essentially, the boys at Yes Theory have established a community (A Yes Theory fam) around the world that live by the idea that life happens outside of your comfort zone. It’s only when you step into the unknown, you Seek Discomfort and ultimately start saying “yes” that personal growth and positive change starts. I love what they stand for and, alongside over 5 million + subscribers, I resonate with their short weekly youtube videos. This documentary was good! It’s free on youtube just btw:
ReMastered: Who Shot The Sheriff Kief Davidson
Um, wtf, I honestly did not know someone tried to assassinate Bob Marley?!
Bikram - Yogi, Guru, Predator Eva Orner
Spent the week declaring that I studied the BARKAN method of yoga NOT BIKRAM.
Expedition Happiness Selima Taibi & Felix Starck
I chose this doco this week because I had cabin fever in our tiny little studio unit in Queenstown, NZ. It was okay.
The Last Vlog Kara & Nate / Youtube channel
Youtubers Kara & Nate created an hour long documentary to celebrate traveling to 100 countries and, inspired by the Yes Theory guys, they released it in a similar way. A Pay What You Think It’s Worth model for immediate viewing of the doco, or wait a few months for it to be released for free on Youtube. And what followed was a huge f*cking shit storm! Some fans felt cheated, others had issues with Gum Rod (the hosting platform they & Yes Theory had their documentaries on) so Kara & Nate uploaded as unlisted on YouTube and someone leaked the link to all the pissed off fans writing mean stuff online. Then, Kara & Nate released an apology for betraying their audience and offered refunds. Yeah. A shit storm!
Watch it here:
Sorry, these recaps are quite lengthy, I promise they aren't all like this. Because I'm Jess Brien. I get bored of sticking to things!
Miss Americana Lana Wilson
Maybe it's because I really respect Sam Brooks' opinion and I had just read his article on the Spinoff but this documentary about Taylor Swift felt a bit disingenuous from the beginning and I couldn't get into it... Then I realised that that's kinda the point. She was playing this good girl character her whole life and then when she started standing up for what she believed in the whole documentary felt a lot more genuine and I got on board more. This final doco for Jan made me realise what I really value in a documentary ... Raw, unpolished and unfiltered content. Not sure if this delivered that? A nice chill watch after I got back from a trip to Auckland for an MRI though!
Only one documentary this month. I was thinking, "classic. Off to a great start. Already failing." Little did I know we were about to go into lockdown...
The People’s Festival: 60 Years of Adelaide Fringe Channel 44, Same River Studio & Adelaide Fringe
We had just cleaned our AirBnB and were all packed ready to leave Adelaide after another successful Fringe Festival. I’m such a nerd. I love my job so much. That’s why I would spend my free time watching this short documentary! It was really cool seeing how it all began and the amount of work that has been put in to make it the festival I know and love today.
Beyond The Curve Daniel J. Clark
Not going to lie, was low key worried they would be able to convince me throughout this that the Earth is flat. Happy to report I am still firmly under the impression that the world is round!
Sour Grapes Reuben Atlas & Jerry Rothwell
Jonas's favourite. It's fine, but it's not my favourite. I learnt a lot about this expensive wine market. Fascinating stuff.
The Pixar Story Leslie Iwerks
Tickled David Farrier & Dylan Reeve
I still remember watching it at the cinema and screaming with Maria Williams at how utterly shocking the world of competitive endurance tickling is!
Mongol Rally KingingIt! / Youtube channel
If you didn’t know, Craig & Aimee from the KingingIt! Youtube channel did the Mongol Rally back in 2018. They also have a season of their travel podcast dedicated to the Rally, filled with adventures and mishaps. I’m definitely going to do the Mongol Rally one day now!!
Watch it here:
Free Solo Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
What. The. F*ck. Fascinating. Thrilling. Overwhelming. I'm shook! Found it so fascinating learning about the amygdala function of the brain. Which, later in April, was a freaking quiz question “what does the amygdala control in the brain” and I KNEW THAT. So this documentary watching for learning thing is actually paying off!!!!
For a couple of docos now I've been feeling inspired that one day I want to create a documentary.
March Extra Documentaries/Docuseries: Tiger King (docuseries) Eric Goode & Rebecca Chaiklin & Cheer (docuseries) Greg Whiteley
Hamilton's America Alex Horwitz
A documentary on the musical Hamilton, the history of America, and a bit of an insight into how Lin Manuel Miranda created the epic musical. I'm so inspired. When interviewing Sondheim and Weidman, Sondheim said, "when you're living it you don't realise it's history" and that really hit something within me because as messed up as this lockdown and COVID19 stuff is… We are literally living history.
Lin MM also talked about how he's grappled with the thought of dying and he thinks everyone at some point does. Struck a chord when he said, "tomorrow's not promised… but we plan anyway." Feel like that's so true. Live like it's your last day every day but keep making plans and dreams and aspirations. Interesting thought provoking stuff.
Crip Camp Nicole Newnham & James LeBrecht
Definitely my favourite documentary to date. Produced by Barack and Michelle Obama, it shows the broken systems and prejudice there is against disabled people. Incredibly moving. A must see!
McMillion$ (Docuseries) Brian Lazarte & James Lee Hernandez
Alright so this feels like a pivotal point in my life where in twenty years I'll look back and go "yeah that was the moment I decided to get into investigative journalism and decided one day I'd make a documentary." I am feeling more and more inspired by the more docos I consume! But back to McMillions... I have become obsessed with this story and am also listening to the podcast too. I fully recommend it. This is top 3 for sure. Hands down.
Diagnosis (Docuseries) Netflix & New York Times
First things first, this is actually the week I decided to apply for Auckland University of Technology to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Communication Studies to learn more about documentaries and investigative journalism. I don't mess around with my dreams folks!
And Diagnosis is well worth a watch. It's intense. Not one you can binge. But we are still in lockdown so might as well. It highlights the importance of knowledge sharing and how having a community around you of people who understand how you feel is absolutely critical.
Subsequently, this was also the week I was offered a place in the journalism program at AUT.
True Cost Andrew Morgan
An absolute must see for anyone who wears clothes. Which I predict is all of you reading this?
(PS: This was the week I declined the offer to study at AUT. Financially I couldn’t make it work because… COVID. Wow. We really are going on a journey with this aren't we.)
Dying To Live CoppaFeel
Coachella - Twenty Years In The Desert Chris Perkel
Closest we will get to Coachella this year. It's free on Youtube. Watch it here:
(Going back to updating you all on my life... This is the week I accepted my place in a journalism paper at University of Canterbury. Financially I could make THAT work and I'm excited to learn more about telling people's stories. Thanks for being with me on this journey!)
Memory Games Claus Wehlisch & Janet Tobias
Never have I ever felt so stupid after watching a documentary in my life! I'm shook at how terrible my memory is.
Hello Privilege. It's Me, Chelsea Alex Stapleton
A great watch if you too need to start unpacking your white privilege.
13th Ava DuVernay
Very important viewing about racism and mass incarceration happening in the USA.
This is also free on Youtube, and I highly recommend you watch it:
In My Blood It Runs Maya Newell
Incredible insight into the life of 10 year old Arrernte Aboriginal boy Dujuan and his life living in Alice Springs. Head to the official website to learn more about how you can watch this documentary from all over the world.
Picture of his Life Doc Edge Film Festival / Dani Menkin & Yonatan Nir
Straight to the one-of-my-favourites list! I think I just love anything that shows me the ocean. But I loved the story. It felt special to be there with them.
I Want To Give My Brain To Richard Faull Doc Edge Film Festival / Folko Boermans
This was another documentary part of the Doc Edge Film Festival here in New Zealand and I loved it. He's a sweet old man with a heart of gold. He lives alone on Waiheke Island, and literally emails someone when he wakes up every morning so that they know he's alive.
Maddy The Model Doc Edge Film Festival / Jane Magnusson
June Extra Documentaries/Docuseries:
Lorena - la de pies ligeros (Light Footed Woman) Juan Carlos Rulfo
After Maria Nadia Hallgren (@nadiahallgren)
A Broken Earth Doc Edge Film Festival / James Muir
Speaking for the Dead Doc Edge Film Festival / Peiman Zekavat
Tall Poppy Chopping Ayeesha Taylor (@ayeeshataylor)
The Booksellers D.W.Young
The first film I've watched in the cinema since the beginning of January!
The Dawn Wall Josh Lowell & Peter Mortimer
Spaceship Earth Matt Wolf
This is now one of those things where I had no idea about this place until getting a recommendation to watch this, and now I see people mention it everywhere.
Athlete A Bonnie Cohen & Jon Shenk
What really interested me was the role of the reporters/journalists in uncovering this story. I want to do that!
The Speed Cubers Sue Kim
I needed this documentary right now in my life. It’s just a short 40 minute watch, but it’s all about the beauty of friendship and made me feel so emotional lol.
Three Identical Strangers Tim Wardle
This has been in my to watch pile for a long time. I had a feeling it was going to be a bit spooky and full on, so I had been putting it off. I was not wrong! Again, really interesting to see that journalists had been chasing this and uncovering more information. Journalism, man! But it’s so much more than that. It’s messed up. Maybe my new fave? Definitely in my top three. (Oh? Future Jess here. I'm reading this back and I didn't realise it was even in my top 3? Interesting.)
The Great Hack Karim Amer & Jehane Noujaim
That was a big watch. Cambridge Analytica are a dark side of humanity huh. Super interesting because in my coms lectures recently they have been about how messed up Facebook is for journalism and how we are all stuck in this system of misinformation. Technology that was built to connect people, is actually ruining our lives. It's a threat to democracy. It's all manipulation and lies. Like Carole says, it's bigger than us. It's not about left or right, leave or remain, Trump or no Trump. There's pretty much no way to go "completely off grid" but you can begin to understand it all a bit more.
Sorry that was a bit deep.
Tig Ashley York & Kristina Goolsby
I can’t believe it took me 5 years to discover Tig and this documentary. This documentary is right up my alley. I even texted Jonas and said, “go watch the trailer for Tig right now! It’s the most Jess documentary that ever was! You’ll watch and go, woah that’s Jess all over.” Did not disappoint. Loved it.
August Extra Documentaries/Docuseries:
Street Food: Latin America David Gelb
Spelling The Dream Sam Rega
Who would've thought I would be so invested in spelling bees!!!??
The Social Dilemma Jeff Orlowski
Every man and his dog watched/was talking about this doco. I'm glad I watched The Great Hack first, and I would recommend you do the same. It helped me understand things better. But yeah. I don't know. It's not like this documentary was new information. Knowledge is power! As long as you can understand the role social media plays in your life the better.
I wrote these quotes: "Global assault on democracy" and "Is this the last generation of people that are gonna know what it was like before this illusion took place?" Fitting. Definitely food for thought, but I wasn't inspired to delete social media like some of my Facebook friends were.
Man vs Octopus NHNZ
A short 45 minute film available for free on NZ Geographic's website that features my friend Alakazam! You've heard it here first folks… Octopuses will take over the world.
Becoming Michelle Obama Nadia Hallgren
I thought this film was really well made. I'm a bit of a fan of Nadia Hallgren's and I love the story of how she came to work on this film. It didn't disappoint! I loved how it wove every part of the story together. Michelle Obama is an amazing lady. I'm excited to read her book now.
Rising Phoenix Ian Bonhôte & Peter Ettedgui
I really don’t know why anyone would only watch the Olympics now when the Paralympics are SO AMAZING. This up there on my favourites list! I recommend it to everyone.
David Attenborough - Life On This Planet Alastair Fothergill, Jonnie Hughes, Keith Scholarly
Incredibly important viewing. It doesn’t make you think, “oh my god we’re all doomed.” Well it kinda does, but in a nice way. A proactive way. Let’s be better, yeah?
BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky Caroline Suh
Ahhh yasss! I love them so much. I didn't even know of them until now. I really enjoyed this documentary. I was convinced Jonas was dead this morning, then convinced myself that I was going to die, then my macbook actually died, and I watched this on my phone in bed lol. Perfect watch for the end of a hectic day.
Mark Mathews - A Life Beyond Fear Macario de Souza
Currently in a hotel room in Christchurch. I'm so emotional at the moment but this doco definitely gave me a little cry fest. I loved it. Inspiring but not trying to be inspiring. It made me realise how much I love telling stories. And side note, I watched this on Redbull TV. Did you know that was a thing?! Here's the link: https://www.redbull.com/nz-en/films/the-other-side-of-fear
Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb James Tovall
If you can’t get to Egypt right now because… well, you know… the pandemic… this will definitely help the itchy feet! Incredible. I can’t imagine what it must be like being there to discover these things!?
All In: The Fight For Democracy Liz Garnish & Lisa Cortés
Whether you are American or not, I think this documentary is an important one to watch so you can understand the signs of democracy being taken away from citizens. Stacey Abrams is a boss. God she's amazing. Everyone who is fighting for equality and voters rights in America is amazing.
Disclosure Sam Feder
An insight into how Hollywood has deeply affected the transgender community. I think this should be compulsory viewing for everyone, especially in schools. If not this exact documentary then something similar.
The Apollo Roger Ross Williams
Was super amazing to watch a documentary about one of the world's most amazing theatres in New Zealand's most amazing theatre - The Civic! Feeling extremely grateful to be past the most recent NZ community covid outbreak so we can head back into the city and watch a documentary in a theatre. It was really inspiring, and overwhelming. I can't believe the same racial injustices are STILL happening.
Dance Dreams - Hot Chocolate Nutcracker Oliver Bokelberg
There is a bit of a theme occurring… I'm desperately seeking inspiration for life as a performer and an artist again. So, I'm filling up my cup with beautiful inspiring things. This is one of them. If you've ever been to a dance school or watched an end of year dance school concert - this is for you.
Shawn Mendes: In Wonder Grant Singer
Normally I watch documentaries to almost trick my brain into thinking it’s “working” especially when I’m watching films about artists. It serves the workaholic in me. But today was different. Life is quite chaotic and really all over the place, and I just wanted to watch something chill (ie not about a murder or something) and escape into someone else’s world. Someone who I definitely am not. And I am definitely not Shawn Mendes!
ICARUS Bryan Fogel
Woaaahhhhhhhh wtf? I don't even know what to say...
Giving Voice James D. Stern & Fernando Villena
Very inspiring and a perfect way to come to an end of 2020. Art is so important.
My Octopus Teacher James Reed & Phillipa Ehrlich
That is definitely the best documentary to end the year on. Life is so precious. I enjoyed the idea that we can overcome obstacles, like when the tentacle was bitten off by a shark and she recovered?! I said it a couple of months ago but I stand by it… Octopuses could take over the world one day. They are AMAZING. I'll fight anyone who thinks otherwise.
December Extra Documentary Documentaries/Docuseries: Whakaari - A Heroes Story
Six60: When The Lights Go Out Julia Parnell
Karl Watson's travel documentaries on youtube Karl Watson
And there you have it. Congratulations on making it this far!
I guess I better share my top 3 list. Drum roll please...
It should come as no surprise that the top spots go to...
Brian Lazarte & James Lee Hernandez
Nicole Newnham & James LeBrecht
My Octopus Teacher
James Reed & Phillipa Ehrlich
Like I said, I'm obsessed. Please feel free to message me on instagram @jessssbrien if you have any recommendations for 2021's documentary list!
See you this time next year for another Year of the Documentary round up. This has been so much fun!