Eight new environmental documentaries to watch for 2021

To mark the international day for climate and environmental awareness on April 22, we list eight new critically acclaimed documentaries well worth getting stuck into, from the eye-opening to the whistleblowing.

By Jamie Lafferty
Published 17 Apr 2021, 08:05 BST, Updated 4 May 2021, 10:56 BST
Honeyland, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov (2019), paints a portrait of North Macedonian beekeepers and ...

Honeyland, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov (2019), paints a portrait of North Macedonian beekeepers and their conservation message.

Photograph by Ljubo Stefanov

It will perhaps come as no surprise that the idea for Earth Day was born in the late 1960s, during the height of the hippie movement — but today, it’s as much grounded in science as it is ideology. With climate awareness and activism at an all-time high and set to continue growing, the global event — which takes place every 22 April — has never been more celebrated or poignant.

And marking this sea change is the art of documentary filmmaking, holding a mirror to the cultural and political zeitgeist. Recent years have seen the release of several award-winning films, focusing on the issues threatening our natural environment, from the bottoms of the oceans to the very soil we walk upon. Here, we suggest a selection of the best to watch. 

1. Seaspiracy, directed by Ali Tabrizi (2021)

The filmmakers who inspired a wave of people to explore or convert to veganism and vegetarianism with Cowspiracy (2014) have turned their unerring focus to the ocean with this new feature-length documentary. Viewers can expect to be faced with some eye-watering facts and statistics surrounding our mistreatment of the world’s oceans. From unsustainable fishing and the dumping of plastics to despicable modern slavery used to provide cheap seafood year-round, this is an unflinching indictment of current practices. Streaming on Netflix 

2. Kiss the Ground, directed by Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell (2020)

Earth with a small ‘e’ is the focus of this Woody Harrelson-narrated documentary. While some may regard the forensic analysis of soils and microbes an unsexy topic, this film — which made a splash at the influential Tribeca Film Festival last year — could never be described as dull. The filmmakers craft compelling arguments against modern farming techniques, and simultaneously show how a wiser, more ecological use of the same land could benefit not just the environment, but its farmers, too. Streaming on Netflix

I Am Greta paints a wonderful portrait that offers a more private and empathetic side of the remarkable young woman, Greta Thunberg.

Photograph by Dogwoof

3. I Am Greta, directed by Nathan Grossman (2020)

The image of a stern-looking teen eyeing the last US president with abject disapproval is now an iconic image, as are shots of the Swedish activist sitting on a pavement with a humble sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate). While they represent just the tip of the — figuratively speaking — Thunberg, the documentary I Am Greta paints a highly polished portrait that offers a more private and empathetic side of the remarkable young woman, and her struggle to become the voice of a jilted generation. Streaming on BBC iPlayer

4. Honeyland, directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov (2019)

It’s rare for any film to be nominated in two separate categories at the Academy Awards, and more so when it’s for Best Documentary and Best International Feature. Ultimately, Honeyland won neither accolade at the 2020 Oscars, but this beautiful story about North Macedonian beekeepers and their conservation message has been a hit, nonetheless. More subtle than other such ecological films, it demonstrates immense trust between the filmmakers and their affable subjects, while showing a way of life that seems to belong to an altogether different era. Streaming on Amazon Prime and YouTube 

5. Ice on Fire, directed by Leila Conners (2019)

The second collaboration between actor and climate champion Leonardo DiCaprio and director Leila Conners is an alarming examination of the potential for global catastrophe at the hands of Arctic thawing. Hearing from ‘climate witnesses’ and progressive scientists around the world, it explains not just the peril we face through inaction but also looks at innovations around the world specialising in carbon capture. As one of the green revolutionaries asks: “Is it game over, or is it in fact game on?” Streaming on Amazon Prime

Read more: Meet the adventurer: ice freediver Kiki Bosch on the transformative power of the ocean

6. David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet, directed by Alastair Fothergill, Jonathan Hughes and Keith Scholey (2020)

The weight of Sir David Attenborough’s elegiac tone looms large in this feature-length witness statement about his nine decades on Earth. Listening to him explain the unsustainable rise of the human population — and with it, the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere — can feel dispiriting, but the legendary naturalist’s message isn’t entirely hopeless. As well as mourning what we’ve lost, Attenborough offers sage advice on what we can do to change. Streaming on Netflix 

7. My Octopus Teacher, directed by James Reed and Pippa Ehrlich (2020)

Much like pigs, octopuses are intelligent. And much like pigs, octopuses are cursed with being coveted for their tastiness. The cephalopods can seem unrelatable and alien to many, but not so for filmmaker and free-diver Craig Foster, whose special relationship with an octopus off the coast of his native South Africa is the subject of this strange and moving documentary. Foster’s environmental epiphanies and deep connection with his ocean-dwelling friend could be easily mocked if this Oscar-nominated film wasn’t so expertly made. Streaming on Netflix

8. 2040, directed by Damon Gameau (2019)

Considering he’s discussing what could be the worst apocalyptic outcomes of the climate catastrophe, garrulous Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau has a remarkably upbeat temperament in this environmental passion project. Motivated by a desire to create a better world for his daughter, the director and frontman chooses not to pore over the grim minutiae of worst-case scenarios, instead dedicating his film to championing eco measures that already exist. If scaled properly, Gameau argues with admirable sincerity, they could literally save the world. Streaming on Amazon Prime and YouTube

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