Whether you count yourself religious or are merely a Religious Studies-wannabe, the following documentaries offer a heaping amount of insight into some of the best-known religious movements, figures, and locations in history. Some of the content within these documentaries will inspire you. Others will torque you off. Regardless of the outcome, watching these docs will make you a better person, whiten your teeth, and freshen your breath.
“Jesus Camp” (2006)
“Jesus Camp” shines the spotlight on the Kids On Fire School Ministry, a charismatic Christian summer camp run by Becky Fischer. The camp encourages children to be soldiers in God’s army in order to counter the children who are willing to die for Islam. Fischer is also shown emphasizing the need to restore America to what she believes are its Christian roots. The filmmakers focus on three children in particular who are sincere in their faith while nonetheless mimicking the rhetoric of the adults around them. “Jesus Camp” created such a firestorm that Fischer later shuttered the ministry.
“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2010)
The Chauvet Cave in southern France is believed to contain some of the oldest known religious cave drawings in the history of man—more than 30,000 years-old, according to archeologists. The French government closed off the cave to the public, but filmmaker Werner Herzog convinced the Minister of Culture to allow him inside for a scant six days of filming. Herzog was limited to a small crew and confined to a narrow two-foot wide path to keep a safe distance from the paintings. These restrictions didn’t stop Herzog from creating a fascinating documentary that many believe gives a window into mankind’s earliest days.
“Saving Africa’s Witch Children” (2008)
People of all races and nationalities have fallen prey to demented religious fervor. Unfortunately, religious Nigerians are no different, as seen in this series of documentaries from the UK’s Channel 4. Stirred up by the teachings of local Pentecostal and charismatic preachers, many parents in Nigeria believe their children are possessed by demons that must be exorcized. The treatment of these children has been horrific, with several instances resulting in abandonment, torture, and even death.
“Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” (2006)
While Jim Jones started out as a traditional Christian preacher from Middle America, his teachings mutated into a stew of social outreach and communism. By the time Peoples Temple left San Francisco, they had detached from their conservative roots and Jim Jones had become an atheist. Jones eventually brainwashed his congregation into committing the largest mass suicide on record, and no one—not even the children—were spared. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson documents the rise of Peoples Temple and its inevitable fall as a deluded cult of martyrs. Not for the faint of heart.
“Mahatma: Life of Gandhi” (1968)
Vithalbhai Jhaveri, this mammoth bio-doc seams together an assortment of media to recount Gandhi’s life. Everything from still photography to animated segments are included while a majority of the narration is provided by the writings of Gandhi himself. While Gandhi was a Hindu, he still sought to protect the interests of both Hindu and Muslim Indians in South Africa and, later, within India during the protests for which he is best known.
“Lord Save Us From Your Followers” (2010)
Director Dan Merchant, a self-professed Bible-believing Christian, sets out to explore the manifold ways in which Christians have put Christianity and the Bible in an awful light. For conservative Christians, "Lord" does not have an ax to grind; for the skeptic, it's not preachy or overbearing. Instead, Merchant talks with people of a variety of faiths (and lack thereof), dialoguing with them about "bumper sticker religion" and how the abuse of religion has impacted their individual lives. Merchant comes across as genuine, likeable, and promotes a cause worth championing.