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9 Travel Documentaries To Watch Right Now

We recently wrote an article and suggested 14 travel films to watch and you loved it. Today we want to share with you 9 travel documentaries to watch to explore your mind. Sometimes you watch a movie and you have ‘I want to go there’ moment and sometimes you watch a movie and it makes you salivate, the sounds, the sensations of its air inspires you to want to go there. It’s not just a movie, or a documentary, it’s now something that makes you feel that you are already there. It’s those movies and documentaries that make you forget everything that is happening around you and make you completely immerse into what you are watching. Here are some documentaries that will make you want to travel and explore you mind.

  1. Man On Wire (2008)

New York, a beautiful city and a French wire-walker Philippe Petit illegally rigged a cable between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and made eight entirely improbable crossings in 45 minutes. This is a great documentary to watch for a couple of reasons; get inspired by how a fellow human being managed to walk on a cable between the twin towers and enjoy how Manhattan was photographed from the top. You can watch it on YouTube, Google Play or Amazon.

2. Free Solo (2018)

An immense, waning moon stares into a canyon’s abyss of sharp stones. A fierce river below spurts along the valley, wild grasses on the banks rolling in the wind like feathers or fur. All this the free-climber Alex Honnold sees – or does he? Fixed like Spider-Man to the side of a cliff, climber’s white chalk clinging to the back of his blistered hands, as the evening flushes rose right across Yosemite National Park. A film that follows Honnold in 2017 preparing to climb the infamous El Capitan – ‘3,200 feet of sheer vertical granite… the centre of the rock-climbing universe’ – without ropes. You sweat in sickly fear for his safety while also completely revelling in the fresh air every frame seems to blow your way, the bright warmth of sun on boulder, the absurd beauty of distant trees, the sight of a rainbow slicing through the foaming heart of a waterfall. You emerge healthier and freer somehow, just for having watched it. Your own limbs spasm as though you walked all day. Despite it being a compelling story of self-induced terror (what drives the angel-faced Honnold remains a mystery), you remember more the awesome sights, the very visceral sensation of movement.

3. Buena Vista Social Club

A phenomenon as much as a movie, the spectacular success of the Buena Vista Social Club album and film had a limitless impact on the Cuban tourist industry. Some 20 years later, the music you hear on street corners in that city is more likely to be the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba defined in the film, by a cadre of musicians (some in their 70s and 80s) who had long fallen out of favour, only to be made world famous in their dotage. I especially love when the camera sways out onto the streets of Havana, filming fast and in natural light the life there: the men working on immense old cars observed by stray dogs the colour of a sweet cold beer; the breeze off the sea playing against shirts; children rolling wooden toys before them; the unloading of mountains of bananas; residents of stuccoed tenements easing vast, scratched and defunct Fifties American fridges out of doors past murals of Che, as though demonstrating the very sickness of capitalism that Guevera railed against. Guitarist Compay Segundo recalling how, aged five, he would light his grandmother’s cigars in Santiago. Or baritone crooner Ibrahim Ferrer showing us the wooden carving he has always kept of Lazarus, and the little bowls of honey, rum and perfume he would offer to it, for good luck – which finally came to him after years of penury and shoe-shining in Havana after the film was released. Every frame takes you to that city, that climate. The smoky smell of the pavements as the sun grows stronger.

4.  The Beaches Of Agnes (2008)

‘The North Sea and the sand is the start for me…’ says Agnès Varda, esteemed filmmaker of the Nouvelle Vague and photographer of genius, who aged 80 in this autobiographical collage of personal memory and feeling, takes us to the beaches that shaped her childhood, her marriage, her art and beyond. ‘Time passes, except on the beaches, which are timeless…’ she reasons, remembering with fondness Belgian sands at La Panne and Middelkerke. And especially the port city of Sète in France’s southern region of Occitanie, where she speaks of seeing fishermen in the 1940s living in rough tents on the dunes, canvas walls slung with storm lamps and old pans. Noirmoutier, the French island in the Bay of Biscay, she recalls her husband Jacques Demy particularly loving, and she films it here in tribute and with such freshness it’s since become a destination for fans of the movie. ‘What is cinema?’ Varda asks, ‘It is LIGHT coming from somewhere…’ We see her sailing up the Seine in a wooden boat, right under the Ponts des Arts, the craft itself painted the sun-flashing yellow of the Provençal sunflowers that Varda always seemed to feature in her movies. I had the good fortune to interview Varda when she was 90, just months before she died, and I took a bunch of sunflowers as a gift – she received them with a yelp of happiness, saying they reminded her of French summers, her wise eyes warm as landing lights.

5. Grizzly Man (2005)

‘Sometimes images themselves develop their own mysterious stardom…’ narrates German director Werner Herzog, over this his most heart-rending film. Part ‘kind warrior’ part ‘samurai’ the conservationist-activist Timothy Treadwell lived for 13 summers with wild Kodiak bears in remote areas of the Alaskan peninsula, shooting 100 hours of footage of those bears in their natural habitat. Styling himself as a Prince Valiant, his eventual death-by-Kodiak was shockingly violent, and Herzog shapes Treadwell’s sad, strange story as a tribute to ‘wild, primordial nature’ where his subject was truly at home. As you watch, you’re convinced you too can feel the fresh air on your own skin, the nip of mosquitoes, the pelter of rain. The long evenings spent alone, the vast plateau of mountains, the tide flats, the tumbled jags of glaciers, the sensation of Treadwell’s hands calloused like leather, the yelp of light in the mornings, the changing Alaskan sky. In one scene, little slim foxes (called Ghost and Spirit) wake him by pressing their noses and paws against the walls of his tent, and he runs with them across a flower-studded meadow, delirious with the surprising gift of such companionship and freedom that would make any child’s heart explode. To be friends with the animals! ‘He captures such glorious improvised moments the likes of which studio directors with their union crews could never dream of,’ says Herzog, with patent admiration, himself an absolute master of putting not just nature, but the profound euphoria of travel on film. Think of those moments in Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, when the hero walks the High Tatra mountains of northern Slovakia, or the Partnach Gorge in the Reintal valley in southern Germany. Rhapsodic.

6. Jiro Dreams Of Sushi (2011)

Even though this documentary is almost entirely set inside a 10-seater Tokyo restaurant with no view, its location somehow comes to feel as though the whole history of Japan might be contained within its temple-like walls. Jiro Ono (now 94) is Japan’s most famous sushi master. He left home aged nine to become an apprentice, opening his own restaurant in the 1960s that now has a three-Michelin-star rating, which means (says one food critic) ‘It’s worth visiting that country just to visit the restaurant.’ Jiro is modest and stern, and we glimpse snatches of his past – anecdotes about his harsh infancy or an alluring black-and-white photograph of his father formally seated in 1927 wearing a sheeny kimono, an image with unforgettable resonance and romance, that seems to far, far predate the Taisho era. Inside the restaurant – a capsule of absorption, firmly sealed in its own private weather – every day proceeds without alteration. The rice is steamed and hand-fanned, the halibut and squid and eel finely sliced and pressed together. ‘Press the sushi like you’re pressing a little chick,’ Jiro advises. ‘The world has turned outside, but he has remained the same,’ someone says, as the camera occasionally takes us outside to the brooding, energetic Tokyo streets, where it always seems to be raining and the crowds hurry. Down to the fish market full of tottering porters and barrow-pushers rhythmically going to and fro, where the best tuna trader drags frowningly on his hand-cupped cigarette, his hair slicked like Elvis, dreaming of the days when the fish were fat as pianos.

7. The Epic Of Everest (1924)

Not just one of the most important travel films ever made, but a precious artefact. A time capsule, a relic. If the third attempt to ascend Everest culminated in the sad deaths of the determined English climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine, the moving image of their expedition (shot by Captain John Noel with a hand-cranked camera sometimes using high-powered telescopic lenses) has thankfully survived. Some of the earliest filmed records of life in Tibet are here, and several frames have been tinted in the original reds and purples of the first screenings in 1924, thanks to meticulous restoration by the BFI. Every second is a marvel, the images profound. Mallory and Irvine facing the climb of their lives in modest tweed jackets. Tibetan babies in stone villages, their skin slathered in yak butter, lying out happily in the sun. A Tibetan gentleman showing his glimmering ear to the camera, dangling its pendant earring of gold and aquamarine. A baby donkey born during the long march west, expected to walk 25 miles on its first day of life, collapsed in the mud (‘How tired and sleepy he is!’). Ancient castles and monasteries stud the mountains, hermit lamas dwelling in cliff-built cells predicting doom for the mission, climbers snow-blind and in states of collapse or trudging past ice-caves and picking off stalactites, as though they were great jags of lickable sugar on a fairy palace. The mountain itself – Tibet’s Goddess Mother of the World – seems to physically pulsate with (as a title card tells us) ‘lofty solitude. Grand, solemn and unutterably lonely.’ And then the image of Mallory and Irvine ascending up, and up, and up, only to disappear, eternally out of sight. ‘We may think of ourselves and nature,’ warns the original text on screen, with what feels like definitive prescience. ‘We spring from nature. In life, we defy her.’

8. Jazz On A Summer’s Day (1959) 

Perhaps the ultimate concert film, made during the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival on Rhode Island, headlined by (among others) Thelonious Monk and Dinah Washington, Gerry Mulligan and Chuck Berry. How many times you wish yourself into the frame! To be among that happy, confident, peanut-crunching crowd. Because the camera has such a lovely, casual eye, it’s like a friend describing little moments and scenes, interested, curious, relaxed. We see Monk take the stage with his bamboo-rimmed dark glasses. Sal Salvador on guitar with a buzz cut, eyes closed in bliss. Anita O’Day singing Tea for Two in a black hat fringed in white feathers, snapping her fingers as she sings, her gloves immaculate. The crowd sways and giggles and sighs, a jewel-box of capri pants and Breton tops. Strappy yellow sundresses and cat-eyed shades, baked shoulders and freckled clavicles draped with hipster cardigans. Well-fed babies are passed down rows to be greeted with kisses by mothers waving choc-ices. Beyond, the water of Narragansett Bay is a sparkling blur dotted with pretty racing boats called Nomad and Pixie. ‘The weather out here is summery, with a smoky haze on the horizon,’ someone thrills over a tannoy, as the camera picks out brown, sandalled feet dangling from a crow’s nests during a race. Sometimes it feels like everything is reflected in the glistering water of the movie; all of the USA’s post-war reach and ambition. It has the optimism of a Cadillac. The ‘Dionysian potential of American life,’ as John Updike put it; that ‘carnival under the dome of heaven, every fair day.’ To me, this film captures precisely that gorgeous, lost moment in time and place, when Ted Hughes was gazing at his new and glamorous wife, Sylvia Plath, recalled in the poem 18 Rugby Street, ‘So this is America, I marvelled. Beautiful, beautiful America!’

9. Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words (2015)

‘I don’t want any roots. I want to be free.’ Ingrid Bergman’s will to travel came from deep within her. Sweden, California, Italy, France, London – she was able to up and move, reinvent herself, leaving lovers and children behind, documenting it all with a cine-camera – and her own footage occupies the majority of this powerfully alluring film. ‘I wanted desperately to get out in the world,’ she said, in letters to friends. ‘It’s as if a bird of passage is living with me.’ And so we follow her through the various stages of her life, with different husbands, and all her pretty infants blowing about like bright petals across the terraces of various villas and hotels (Hotel Raphael in Paris was her favourite). She’s here, driving around Rome in a white convertible, laughing at the paparazzi. Or clambouring with fishermen about the Aeolian island of Stromboli, sweeping shining hair from out of her tear-filled eyes. Or knitting topless in the powerful sunlight, all broad shoulders and witty expression. Diving into a pool in Hollywood, using a magnum of Champagne as a life buoy. And best: her robust, salty skin tanned the colour of rosewood against an unglamorous raincoat on the isolated, harshly granite island of Dannholmen off the Swedish west coast, where she joined the local sailing school, and where her ashes were scattered after she died. ‘I love your island,’ she’d said to her third husband, seeing his modest wooden house in 1958, with its rusted anchor sitting sentinel off the grey and merciless rocks. ‘Good,’ he’d nodded. ‘Let’s get married, then.’

Let us know what you think and if you watched any of them below.


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