The 13 Most Influential Documentaries Ever

Thursday morning, SeaWorld shocked the animal welfare world again when it announced it would be ending its captive breeding program of Orcas, meaning the current generation of Orca whales now in captivity will be the park's last. The company will discontinue breeding them in all parks and move forward with its plan to phase out the live Orca shows as well. SeaWorld has not captured an Orca in the wild in over 40 years, meaning that all of the 29 whales in its parks were born in captivity. The end of the breeding program is yet another important step in the direction towards ending the captivity of these magnificent creatures, and many are crediting the new development to one influential documentary: Blackfish .

The announcement comes a little over two years since the release of Blackfish, which followed the controversial practice of keeping Orcas in captivity. Though the doc explored multiple parks throughout the world, it was particularly damning to SeaWorld, and heavily featured the story of Tilikum, a captive Orca responsible for three human deaths.

Documentary films certainly have the power to affect change, and many people credit Blackfish for playing a role in SeaWorld's recent changes, but it's not the only documentary film to have results. Here are 13 other docs that managed to change the world.

1. Super Size Me, 2004

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock ate only McDonald's for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for an entire months in this shocking doc. At the end of his experimental period, he had gained over 25 pounds. Not long after its release, McDonald's eliminated its Super Sized portions from its menu, began providing written nutrition information and started offering healthier options.

2. Bowling for Columbine, 2002

Michael Moore's examination of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School was noted for its total takedown of gun control measures and the pervasive availability of firearms. In one shocking sequence, he took survivors of the shooting to K-Mart to ask for refunds for the bullets still lodged inside their bodies. Not long afterward, K-Mart stopped selling ammunition.

3. An Inconvenient Truth, 2006

This Oscar-winning documentary utilized the surprising showmanship of former Vice President Al Gore to expose the environmental dangers humanity is placing on planet Earth. The film is shown in schools around the country and managed to start a world-wide environmental conversation that, for too long, had been all but ignored.

4. Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills/Paradise Lost 2: Revelations/Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

The guilt of the so-called "West-Memphis Three" killers was all but assured until filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky came along. It took 18 years, but this series of films led to a more in-depth examination by the courts and eventually led to their freedom.

5. The Cove, 2009

Much like Blackfish, The Cove revolved around marine mammals that people love to see but don't love to see hurt. It exposed the tradition of dolphin hunting on Japan's Taiji Cove. After its release, the practice saw a significant drop.

6. The Thin Blue Line, 1988

If you love Serial and Making a Murderer, you may have The Thin Blue Line to thank. Randall Dale Adams was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a police officer, but this doc by Errol Morris exposed the fact that several witnesses had lied under oath. The film led to Adams' release.

7. The Invisible War, 2012

This troubling film explored allegations of rape culture within the U.S. military. By interviewing over 100 former servicewomen and men about allegations of prevalent sexual abuse, the filmmakers were able to ignite almost immediate change. Only 48 hours after screening the film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reformed the structure of reporting sexual abuse in the military. Prior to these changes, victims could only report abuse to their superior officer, who was often the alleged perpetrator.

8. Inside Job, 2010

Much of Inside Job focuses on the American financial crisis, but some of it exposed the trend of consulting deals done by members of Columbia Business School Faculty who neglected to disclose their involvement. After the film, Columbia implemented a new policy requiring public disclosure of all outside activities that may create a conflict of interest.

9. Harlan County U.S.A., 1976

Barbara Kopple's Oscar-winning documentary followed a group of coal miners and their strike against the Brookside Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky. The miners were fighting against their dangerous working conditions and for more appropriate pay. While the doc didn't affect the outcome of the strike, Kopple's presence there, and capturing all activities on camera, notably prevented numerous violent outbursts and saved lives.

10. Gimme Shelter, 1970

While much of this doc focuses on The Rolling Stones' famous tour, much of the runtime is devoted to the tragic events at the concert at Altamont. As concertgoers fought with Hells Angels, a man named Meredith Hunter was stabbed. Footage from the film, however, proved that Hunter had drawn a gun, and the stabber acted in self defense.

11. Jesus Camp, 2006

This documentary explored the controversial practice of the evangelization and indoctrination of children in extreme Christian environments. The camp featured in the film, which promoted homophobia and climate change denial, shut down shortly after the film was released.

12./13. Triumph of the Will, 1935 and Why We Fight, 1942-45

Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will was an extremely well-made piece of Nazi propaganda that followed the Third Reich's rally in Nuremberg. It was a huge motivator of German citizens during the Nazi regime, and is known as one of, if not the most influential piece of propaganda filmmaking in history. American filmmaker Frank Capra was astounded by the film, saying it, "fired no gun, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal." In response, Capra made his own series of films, titled Why We Fight, to encourage American citizens to care about the "War in Europe," and used segments of Triumph of the Will to ignite the patriotism of U.S. citizens. Without them, America may not have been so keen to get involved.

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