Guest post by Dan Gentile
Travel gives views into cultures that you'd otherwise never experience from your own home. Although most life-changing trips are currently on pause, that doesn’t mean you have to stop exploring other parts of the world. A good documentary can take you to new corners of the world without leaving the couch, with far better snacks than what you’d find at Fyre Fest.
Here’s ten documentary films and TV series that cover a wide spectrum of travel-related topics. Some take you to unseen corners of the natural world and others into the heart of international political conflicts. They show places you’d dream of visiting, food that’s worth a 14-hour plane trip, and the world’s most perfect waves. And also an RV salesman who was having a very, very bad day.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
One place you definitely didn’t want to be was the Bahamas on the last weekend of April in 2017. Fyre Fest has now gone down in history as one of the most ridiculous cultural disasters ever, and even those sheltering in place can take pity on the poor souls who traveled to a tropical island in search of a luxury festival experience, only to find dirty tents and sack lunches. Twin documentaries recount the progression of this influencer-driven scam, each with sticky controversies of their own: Hulu paid Fyre Fest Billy McFarland for his appearance, and Netflix’s version was produced by a marketing company involved in promoting the festival.
See the world through the lens of smoked meat in this 2017 film that travels the globe to showcase the fine art of cooking protein over flames. Beautifully filmed in locations as iconic in the barbecue world as Central Texas, and as far-flung as Mongolia, it will definitely create some travel fomo (or at the very least inspire a takeout order). Cooking techniques featured range from slow smoking brisket to flash-grilling yakitori beef in Japan, showing how the difference in culinary styles reflects the countries’ unique cultures. Pairs best with a meal cooked in your backyard.
United Shades of America
In this CNN show, comedian and writer Kamau Bell journeys across America to try to learn just what America is, addressing issues of race with a curiosity and fearlessness that’s a welcome antithesis to most of today’s political discourse. Be it digging into what reparations would actually look like, breaking bread with white supremacists, or the gentrification of a hip city like Portland, his nonjudgmental lens on traveling to often overlooked communities is a breath of fresh air in the cable news landscape.
Night on Earth
Just when you think you’ve seen every “Planet Earth” spinoff you need, Netflix goes and makes another breathtaking nature documentary that somehow feels fresh. The premise is simple: animals at night. Shot with night vision technology that’s so good it’s scary; the show captures a side of the natural world that no one is usually able to see, literally. From the plains to the jungle to the sea, the six-episode series covers just about every landscape you’d want to visit, and is a perfect thing to put on in the background while working or doing chores.
Although it’s currently impossible to visit the coastlines of Ghana or beautiful beaches of Hawaii, surfing is one of the few pandemic-safe activities. For aspirational surfers (experienced ones have likely seen this film 100 times), the ‘60s free spirit vibes of “Endless Summer” will immediately make you Google “closest surf spot near me.” It’s one of those rare films that serves as a perfect time capsule for a subculture, and even though you aren’t leaving your living room, still feels like a mental vacation.
Somebody Feed Phil
Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal is a very nice guy. That’s apparent after just watching a couple minutes of his food travel show, where he takes an everyman approach to seeing the world through the lens of food. As opposed to other shows like Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” where adventure is the main course, Rosenthal’s philosophy is more about convincing people that travel isn’t hard, and that even the most homebodied can enjoy locales that would otherwise seem exotic, like Mexico City, Marrakech, or Cape Town.
Buena Vista Social Club
One of the most iconic music documentaries ever, “Buena Vista Social Club” takes the viewer on the ultimate tour of Cuba by way of its ultimate musicians. It’s a classic “getting the band back together” story of reuniting some of the biggest names in Cuba music. Filmed in 1999, when Cuba was still largely inaccessible to American travellers and leaving the country was a challenge to say the least, American musician Ry Cooder not only successfully tracks down some of his musical idols, but he also brings them to New York and Amsterdam for two of the most epic concerts in history.
Before you could rent a campervan on the internet for a socially distanced vacation, the best RV-related content online had to do with a used car salesman simply dubbed the Winnebago Man. In one of the earliest Youtube viral videos, salesman Jack Rebney is shown in a series of vintage commercial outtakes cursing like a very creative sailor. Like most Youtube oddities, his life was a mystery, until the filmmakers behind “Winnebago Man” hired a private investigator to hunt him down, then took a road trip of their own to his California home only to find that he was still just as angry after all these years.
The Dawn Wall
Not to be confused with “Free Solo,” which was coincidentally released in the same month, “The Dawn” follows the extraordinary career of legendary free-climber Tommy Caldwell as he attempts the almost inconceivable feat of free-climbing Yosemite’s most challenging rock face. The cinematography is stunning, but Caldwell’s story is even more incredible, from being captured by terrorists as a teenager on a climbing trip in Kyrgyzstan to losing a finger in a table saw accident and continuing to climb. Whether you’re an amateur climber or just someone who loves aerial shots of national parks, “The Dawn Wall” will blow you away.
By far the hardest film to watch on this list, “For Sama” is a gut-wrenching documentary filmed inside a crumbling hospital in war-torn Syria. Filmed entirely by an 18-year-old student, it follows a group of emergency doctors as they do their best to cope with the horrible violence befalling Aleppo. And just as it seems like their tasks couldn’t get any harder, filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab finds out that she’s pregnant, eventually birthing her child and trying to raise it as the group battles with the decision of whether to flee the warzone. Be warned, the violence in the film is real and very intense, but that makes Al-Kateab’s joys of motherhood all the more powerful.
If we missed a favorite of yours on this list, let us know in the comments. We hope these help inspire your future travels, whenever they may be.
Dan Gentile is a writer and coffee enthusiast based in San Francisco, California.