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Top 25 Most Inspiring Public Health Documentaries
By Staff Writer

Public Health documentary films have been around since the advent of film. In 1922, the very first long-form documentary feature was released. It was a silent, anthropological film called Nanook of the North. Other films began taking a look at important facts, rather than simply fictitious, artful imitations of life. The genre of the documentary film remains a favorite among people who are interested in learning, offering more images than reading, and being less expensive than being there. For those who are specifically interested in the ways that Public Health is depicted in films, and in the topics that documentaries can often expose for people look no further.

In the current era of tech-obsession, many overworked Americans could not imagine reading a non-fiction book, even about something that matters to them. The newspaper is becoming a thing of the past, replaced with clickbait titles and social media blasts. With technology to learn about and to make films more accessible to all of us than ever before, the number of good quality documentaries available to everyone is on the rise. Video streaming apps like Netflix and Prime Video from Amazon are making this terrific resource at the ready all the time. Gone are the days that you had to be in film school or live in a cultural epicenter where film festivals came to you, in order to see niche documentary films. Many of the documentaries below take a deep dive into some of the most intense Public Health crises of our time. Ranging in topic from Global Health and Epidemiology, to Emergency Risk Management, the concepts portrayed on screen in these films is gripping and will leave you aware of a human complexity that you may have never known.

1. And the Band Played On

And the Band Played on was a pivotal HBO Docudrama based on the nonfiction best seller with the title And the Band Played on: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts, written in 1987. The film was directed by Roger Spottiswoode. The film opens in 1976, where we follow epidemiologist Don Francis to a village in Zaire on the Banks of the Ebola River. It is in the first few moments of the film that we discover that many people living in the village have passed away from what we later find out is Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever. Francis is traumatized by his findings, which lead him to later work at the front lines of HIV/AIDS research for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Prior to its HBO broadcast, the film premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and has been ubiquitously known as one of the most foundational public health films of our time.

Release year: 1993 
Runtime: 2 hr 21 min

2. Hero with a Thousand Faces

The Public Health documentary Hero with a Thousand Faces provides a complex look at the Ebola Public Health crisis and the thousands of people who risked everything to fight against it. The film engages a mix of different famous people and experts on the topic of one of the biggest Public Health issues of our time. The focus though is not necessarily on the illness itself, but all of the regular people who thought it was worth putting their lives on the line to drive ambulances, bury the dead, provide medical care, and conduct research that could find a cure. Some of the interviewees include Barack Obama, Tony Blair, Bono, Stephen Colbert, Jeffrey Wright, Bruce Davidson, and Jon Stewart. The movie was primarily filmed in Sierra Leone.

Release year: 2016
Runtime: 1 hr 29 minutes

3. The Final Inch

The Final Inch is a Public Health short-form documentary that focuses on the public health workers at the front of the fight to eradicate polio primarily in Pakistan and India. The film was directed by Irene Taylor Brodsky and shot on location in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The efforts to combat this disease were successful in India, though the struggle remains ongoing in the Pakistan and Afghanistan with some progress. The Final Inch gained a great deal of popularity following its first showing at the Salem Film Festival and received an Academy Award Nomination. It later debuted on HBO on April 1 of the same year, 2009. The film was supported by the philanthropic division of Google and was actually their first ever film project.

Release year: 2009
Runtime: 38 minutes

4. Between Life and Death

Between Life or Death is an eye-opening Public Health documentary that follows doctors who have the ability to interrupt and in some cases reverse death. It is filmed in Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the best brain injury clinic in the country. The narrative of the film is driven by the story of a man who communicates only by moving his eyes. He is asked if he wants to live or die, forcing doctors and family members to contend with an unbelievably challenging ethical decision. This film was the inspiration for the 2014 documentary titled Edge of Life, which was about the famous Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Between Life and Death won both the BAFTA and RTS Television award for the best Single Documentary.

Release year: 2011

5. Race Against the Killer Flu

Race Against the Killer Flu is a public health documentary that follows the world’s leading scientists and virus hunters on the journey to make sense of the latest threatening virus and stop it in its tracks. The film asks us to comprehend a flu that kills 70 percent of those it infects and has the possibility of being as contagious as a winter common cold. What would the panic look like in relation to an illness such as this? There are many questions posed, including would the martial law have to be enacted? The avian flu was the first to make it to the collective conscience in Asia, beginning in 1997. National Geographic made produced this important inquiry-based documentary.

Release year: 2010
Runtime: 52:31:00

6. Fire in the Blood

The harrowing documentary Fire In the Blood exposes the Western pharmaceutical industry and its relationship with the government, and how together they blocked low-cost access to drugs for HIV and AIDS in Africa and countries in the global south after 1996. The effect of this effort was the death of at least ten million people unnecessarily. The story ultimately is about a group of people who committed their lives to fight back. Fire in the Blood was filmed on four continents and interviews leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Bill Clinton, and Joseph Stiglitz. The frontline fighters that this film follows have never been documented prior to this piece, and together they ultimately saved millions of lives. The film is just a foundation, as the filmmakers explore the fact that we are still in need of dramatic victories. The director of this critical public health documentary is Dylan Mohan Gray.

Release year: 2012
Runtime: 1 hr 24 min

7. Ancient Enemy

Did you know that Leprosy in India still exists? The critical public health film Ancient Enemy teaches audiences that despite being “eliminated” officially in 2005 Leprosy is still alive and well in India. Public Health hero Rajni Kant Singh is a character we get to know in this documentary, and he helps us explore the ways Leprosy has been shuttled off public health agendas, allowing eradication resources to go dormant. Not only does this film dive into the fight to end leprosy, but it educates the public about this misunderstood disease. We are given the information that multidrug treatments and early diagnoses can actually cure the illness. The takeaway of this provocative piece is that there is still work to be done in terms of eradicating leprosy, and the first step is getting it back onto a public health agenda.

Release year: 2014

8. How to Slay a Dragon

The film How to Slay a Dragon is a documentary that goes into detail about the illness Dracunculiasis, which is also known as Guinea Worm. This Public Health film shows us that change is possible, as we walk through the history of this particular illness. In 1986 there were over 3.5 million cases reported, and as of 2013 the Carter Center reported only 148 cases. This film calls us to ask the question: what was it that allowed this illness to be fought so successfully? Was it the efforts of an international band of Public Health workers? There is no cure or vaccine for Guinea Worm. President Jimmy Carter dedicated much of his philanthropic organization’s mission to eradicate this illness.

Release year: 2015

9. Poder

The Public Health documentary Poder was directed and edited by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell. The narrative of the film revolves around Elba and Emlin, two Mayan indigenous girls from Guatemala who were instrumental in Rise Up, an all-girl led advocacy group. This group fought a long and hard battle for their rights in the service of transforming their community. The Rise Up initiative was called Let Girls Lead, and it inspired change makers to advocate for funding and legislation that would make sure girls can escape poverty, stay in school, and stay healthy. The journey of Rise Up’s success is followed in this pivotal, short and aesthetically beautiful film.

Release year: 2014
Runtime: 16:08

10. The Mask You Live In

The documentary The Mask You Live in looks at the construction of masculinity as a toxic Public Health issue. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom unpacks our culturally narrow definition of masculinity and how its actually harming boys and men, while examining what we can do about it. The film won the Jury Prize at the Las Vegas International Film Festival in the category for Best Achievement in Female Filmmaking in 2015. Many questions are brought to the surface in the film, including what does it mean to be a man?  and other similar topics that we are not culturally trained to engage with. Some critiques of the film include the idea that race was not covered in the analysis of gender and gender identity as they relate to masculinity.

Release year: 2015
Runtime: 1 hr and 37 minutes

11. In Defense of Food

The public health documentary In Defense of Food follows New York Times bestseller author Michael Pollan in this piece about his life’s work, debunking nutrition myths for the general public. This film shows audiences how damaging the industrial driven western diet is, and how the media brainwashes us to believe we’re eating healthy. In this unique look at a new lens on an International food crisis, Pollan travels to grocery store aisles from around the world in order to illustrate his best selling book “The Eater’s Manifesto.” He takes his time answering the critical questions of our time, “what should we eat to be healthy?” Time Magazine has since named Michael Pollan one of the most influential people in the world.

Release year: 2015
Runtime: 1 hr and 55 min

12. India’s Daughter

The public health documentary India’s Daughter takes audiences through the horrific story of the brutal murder and gang rape of 23-year-old medical student Joyti Singh in Delhi, which was the cornerstone of an uprising of protests that sparked the debate about gender equality in India. This tragic piece tells the story of this 2012 devastating violent act while simultaneously exploring Joyti’s against all odds journey of becoming a medical student. This is a complicated story as it also takes us into the lives of the assailants, their families, and their defense teams, exploring the ways India is struggling with any movement towards modernity. Filmmaker and producer Leslee Udwin has been making films since 1986.

Release year: 2015
Runtime: 1 hr 25 min

13. How You Really Make Decisions

This BBC documentary explains the psychological structures that make up the human decision making patterns. Scientists have been able to map these patterns over decades of studies. At the heart of human thinking is a conflict between intuition and logic, says the documentarians. The reason the mind must weigh many variables when making decisions instead of simply taking input and regurgitation output like a computer would is because intuition and emotionality play a role in our decision making as well. The reason this is a Public Health issue is that if we are able to have a better sense of how people decide between two or more variables, we will become able more efficiently educate a population against preventable diseases such as sexually transmitted infections and dietary illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

Release year: 2015

14. Sustainable

The public health documentary Sustainable provides an inside view of America’s food system’s instability, including the impact global warming is having on our agricultural system. We are able to interrogate soil loss, the damaging use of pesticides, water depletion, and climate change, as this film follows farmers and the land they work. Our main character is Mary Travis, a seventh-generation farmer from central Illinois; he watched his community become victims of big agribusiness. Subsequently, we follow him on his journey to initiate a sustainable food movement in Chicago. This film takes us across the country to find leadership and insight from farmers who have made a difference. This is a story that builds on the hope of our land’s resilience.

Release year: 2016

15. The Divide

The public health documentary The Divide was directed by Katherine Round, a British filmmaker. It is a film adaptation of the highly revered book that addresses socio-economic issues called Spirit Level, by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The books argument was that inequality has gradually damaging effects on societies, including the erosion of trust, an increase of anxiety and mental and physical health issues, and the encouragement of excessive consumption. The film was primarily funded by an Indigogo campaign that was significantly more successful than expected. It then premiered at several film festivals including Sheffield Doc/Fest in June of 2015. At the Open City Film Festival in London it was nominated for Best UK film.

Release year: 1 hr and 17

16. What’s With Wheat?

The documentary What’s With Wheat investigates the growing Public Health concerns about wheat, and the ways it has changed. It no longer resembles the ancient grain, and we are seeing more cases of gluten and wheat sensitivity. The film links wheat to a myriad of autoimmune diseases, and the suffering of so many people. Many thousands of people suffer from consuming gluten and wheat specifically without knowing that’s what is making them sick. Film director Justin Brown and writer Cyndi O’meara tackle this grain in this informative feature documentary. Fifteen experts on the topic are interviewed and shed light on this little known public health crisis.

Release year: 2015
Runtime: 1 hr 19 min

17. Cries from Syria

The documentary Cries From Syria is a painful account of the devastating Syrian conflict that lasted five years. The film draws from hundreds of hours of footage from way taken from Syrian activists, child protestors, citizen journalists, and those at the front lines of the revolution. Human rights defenders are interviewed as well as regular citizens attempting to live normal lives. High ranking army generals who defected from the government are also interviewed. The public health crisis in Syria is highly misunderstood, and this film has a mission of asking the public for attention. The film is directed by Evgeny Afineevsky. Cries from Syria premiered in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Release year: 2017
Runtime: 1 hr 52 minutes

18. Heroin(e)

The highly acclaimed short documentary Heroin(e) takes us deep into the public health crisis of drug overdoses. Viewers get a glimpse into the overdose capital of America Huntington, West Virginia. We meet three women, a drug court judge, a fire chief, and ahead of an outreach ministry. Together this collection of powerful women are committed to taking back their community with tools of compassion, as they aim to bring healing to a fraught and pervasive cycle of addiction. The film’s directors are Elaine McMilion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon. This film was nominated for an Academy Award in the topic of Best Short Subject film.

Release year: 2017
Runtime: 39 min

19. Unrest

Unrest is a feature documentary written and directed by Jennifer Brea, who is also the primary subject in the film. Jennifer was instantly struck with an illness that came on suddenly right before she married her husband. It started with a fever that left her bedridden and progressively more ill. We see her the acute nature of her illness progress to the point where sitting in a wheelchair becomes too much. After doing her own research she discovered the public health crisis of myalgic encephalomyelitis, which is commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or CFS. The film features gorgeous angles and camera movements from the perspective of Jennifer’s bed, which is where she is forced to spend the majority of her life.

Release year: 2017
Runtime: 1 hr 38 min

20. What the Health

What the Health is a Public Health documentary that is built on the award-winning film Cowspiracy. Filmmaker Kip Anderson is followed throughout the course of the story, and we watch him expose the secrets to chronic illness prevention and reversing diseases. He digs deep into the answers of why leading health organizations don’t want us to have that information. One of the largest health-related cover-ups of our times lies the knowledge to prevent heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases. Medical doctors, research and Public Health and consumer advocates voices are used to expose the government corruption and collusion with big business that is keeping us sick and costing our country trillions of dollars.

Release year: 2017
Runtime: 1 hr 32 min

21. Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

The PBS sponsored documentary called Understanding the Opioid Epidemic exposes the perils of the Public Health crisis related to the widespread opioid epidemic. The feature-length film synthesizes the stories of individuals and communities that are impacted by this topic. The film then ventures to trace the roots of the United States history with opioids and then brings forth solutions of how to heal and shift the landscape of the opioid crisis that is impacting so many people across race and class lines. This is very much an advocacy piece that comes with a community engagement toolkit that can be used in community settings to employ communitywide solutions.

Release year: 2018
Runtime: 55:11

22. Cervical Cancer in Uganda: Three Perspectives

This film Cervical Cancer in Uganda: Three Perspectives is responding to the Public Health crisis of cervical in Uganda. It is the most prominent cancer in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for 40 percent of all cancers, which start with cervical cancer. Based on research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) cervical cancer is responsible for the majority of cancer-related deaths in the region. This documentary follows Sascha Garrey, who is a graduate of the Boston University School of Public Health and a Pulitzer Center student, as she travels through Uganda in an effort to get to the bottom of prevention and treatment options for women in the area.

Release year: 2014

23. That Sugar Film

That Sugar Film is a Public Health related documentary that attempts to understand the truths behind sugar. Filmmaker Damon Gameau conducts an experiment to document the impact of a high sugar diet on a healthy body, and he eats only foods that are perceived as “healthy.” We follow him as he uncovers some of the problems that inform the sugar industry, and where sugar actually hides on grocery store shelves. Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who made the movie Super Size Me was a consultant for this film. Gameau brings a sense of humor to the screen as he unlocks updated information about the common debate related to sugar intake.

Release year: 2015
Runtime: 1 hr and 30 min

24. The Provider

The film The Provider brings us to the front of the hot Public Health debate around abortion. The filmmaker begins by deconstructing legislation, such as House Bill 2 (HB2) in Texas, which pose a great threat to abortion clinics, patients and providers. A character we follow is abortion provider Doctor Shannon Carr who is willing to travel hundreds of miles to provide safe and legal abortions. In this film we see the opposition and threats that bombard Carr. The Provider was an official selection for a number of film festivals including SXSW, Post Alley Film Festival, NYC Independent Film Festival, and it was also the official winner for the Television Academy Foundation.

Release year: 2015

25. World Health Organization (WHO) documentaries

WHO documentaries are three different lenses for which to see and understand the Public Health impact of climate change. These are three arguments that sit at the center of the COP16 conference that meets in Cancun, Mexico. The goal is to ensure that if a new post-Kyoto agreement were to be struck, we will engage the health economic and health benefits that are possible if we resist climate change. The first short film suggests that climate change is highly detrimental for health, touching on the reality that if carbon rises health declines. The second film addresses the reality greenhouse gases pose serious health threats. The third film explores the ways the climate change is socially unjust.

Release year: 2008