A Look Into the Past

Written by: Chong Tien Ee (20-E6), Zhao Keyang (19-I1), Wong Siew Yee (19-O3), Lim Junheng, Jovan (20-O5) 

Watching documentaries, which are sources of information, can be an excellent way to understand more about the world, especially about our collective history. Chronologically, these documentaries highlight how much our world has changed but also the timelessness of themes such as leadership and humanity. While some documentaries can be an absolute bore, we have collated some historical ones that we think are worth a watch.

From platforms such as YouTube and Netflix, these documentaries are rated out of ten for their technicality, entertainment and educational values and their emotional impact on the audience. So sit back, enjoy our recommendations and take a break from your preparations for Promos, Prelims or editing your Project Work drafts!

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Figure 1: 12 Best Documentaries on Hulu (Town&Country)

 

Lost Worlds: Persia’s Forgotten Empire

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Figure 2: Ancient Rulers of Persia,
The Temple of Jerusalem Is Dedicated by King Darius. (ThoughtCo)

The Persian Empire, one of the least known ancient civilizations, spanned from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth century B.C. The capital of this empire was Persepolis, which was left forgotten after being destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C.

This documentary transports viewers to an archeological site in Southern Iran, where the ruins of the once great city now lay. Using conventional re-enactments, anecdotes of archaeological discovery and computer graphics, the documentary re-imagines Persepolis in its full glory and brings the city back to life right before the viewers’ eyes. Interviews with archeologists and other experts are a big part of this documentary and it is certainly educational to hear from the people who understand this topic remarkably well and have done extensive research into the Persian empire. 

Educational value: 8/10

The documentary’s interesting approach certainly makes it a worthy watch, although its graphics are not the clearest due to the fact that it originally aired in 2002. One highlight of the documentary was when a connection was established between the past and the present as the filmmakers visited a modern Bazaar and examined products that would have been a part of people’s lives in the Persian Empire.

Entertainment value:  6/10

Though dull and monotonous at times, the documentary is incredibly informative and one can learn almost everything about Persepolis, from its grand infrastructure to the everyday lives of its people. With the attention to detail and captivating perspective, this documentary has certainly achieved its educational purpose of providing insight into the history of Persepolis. 

Technicality: 5/10, Emotional impact: 5/10, Overall score: 6/10

 

China’s Forgotten Emperor

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Figure 3: Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian from a 2014 Chinese serial drama (Medium)

Empress Wu Zetian, also known as Empress Consort Wu, is recognised as one of the most prominent characters in China’s history. Ruling the Tang dynasty as Empress from 655 A.D. to 690 A.D. and as Emperor for 15 years, the Tang Empire prospered under her rule.

The film features economic prosperity in the Tang dynasty through aesthetic visual shots of China’s land, coupled with beautiful aerial shots of China’s sacred mountains.

Technicality: 6/10

However, as a woman serving the position of a male dominated role, many accused Empress Wu of ruining the empire, and her achievements were denigrated. This documentary explores new narratives on events during her rule in hopes of reversing the negatively portrayed image of China’s only female emperor. With hands-on investigations and access to the treasures of the Empress’ time, this film aims to give a definitive answer to the question: was Empress Wu really an evil tyrant or one of the most successful rulers in all Chinese history? 

Entertainment value: 6/10, Educational value: 7/10

Overall, the documentary gives a refreshing perspective on Empress Wu’s reign and offers a different perspective to her regime, highlighting her skills as a female politician and also the cruelties performed during that time. This documentary gives viewers insight into many artefacts that were used during her reign and the stories behind them. What we find most interesting about this documentary is that it includes small snippets of re-enacted scenes to allow the audience to immerse themselves in the past, which helps to retain the attention of the audience as the content might be dry at times. 

Emotional impact: 5/10, Overall score: 6/10

 

Last of the Tsars

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Figure 4: Depiction of Russian Tsar Monarchy (American Affairs Journal)

“Last of the Tsars” documents the events that led up to the fall of the Russian Tsar; the documentary unveils the truth behind this fall by looking back on the events leading up to it. It covers a wide range of topics, including the Romanovs who ruled Russia and their contributions to the country, as well as key events in Russian history. Additionally, it includes case studies of those who witnessed the series of events that ended in the demise of the Romanov family. This documentary was extensive in its description of events that happened during the reign of Nicholas Romanov, while including the opinions of historians who examined the Romanovs’ long history. 

Educational value: 9/10


The documentary includes clips and pictures from events that occurred during the Tsar’s reign, one of which was the Khodynka Tragedy, which took place on the 18th of May. The coverage of the arrival of Gregory Rasputin, a man shrouded in mystery, and his involvement with the Tsar made the documentary all the more compelling.

Entertainment value:  6/10

Overall, the documentary is comprehensive and extremely thorough when explaining the history of that particular period in Russia, giving viewers clear understanding. The inclusion of various case studies added on to the rich analysis of what contributed and led to the fall of the Tsar. 

Technicality: 5/10, Emotional impact: 5/10, Overall score: 7/10

 

Power’s War

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Figure 5: Picture from Power’s War (HistoryNet)

In 1918, a group of four law enforcers would travel to an isolated cabin belonging to Jeff Power in Arizona to apprehend two draft dodgers, Power’s sons, John and Tom. What should have been a rather harmless event escalated into one of the deadliest shootouts in Arizona’s history. The documentary “Power’s War” examines the reasons behind the shootout and the events preceding the tragic incident.

Through interviews with historians, newspaper clippings, personal accounts and journal entries, the documentary paints a complete and vivid picture of the event. At its core, the documentary highlights the rights of the individual and its relationship with the authority of the government; it discusses this and attempts to address the issue, which is one that is relevant in today’s context–the mask problem America currently faces comes to mind.

Entertainment value: 8/10, Educational value: 9/10

Notably, the documentary has won many awards, most prominently the title of Best Documentary Feature in the Logan Film Festival and the Grand Jury Prize in the 2015 Anthem Film Festival. The documentary stands out with its unique way of portraying events, opting for striking animations instead of live-action re-enactments. This unquestionably refreshing approach sets this documentary apart from more conventional ones, while still maintaining sombreness and presenting events with dignity. This documentary is definitely worth a watch. 

Technicality:  9/10, Emotional impact: 7/10, Overall score: 8/10

 

Victims of the Nazi Twin Experiment 

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Figure 6: A group of child survivors behind a barbed wire fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau, on the day of the camp’s liberation on January 27, 1945. Twins Eva and Miriam Mozes are pictured on the far right. (HISTORY)

Led by physician Josef Mengele, better known as the “Angel of Death”, a massive, inhumane medical experimentation program that subjected over 1500 pairs of twins to disease, disfigurement and torture under the guise of medical “research” was conducted at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“Victims of the Nazi Twin Experiment” describes what conspired in the Nazi twin experiment and tells the story of Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Nazi twin experiment, who wanted to get to the bottom of what Mengele has done to her in Aushwitz. It also shows viewers how Eva proceeds to shed light on the events of the Holocaust. 

Foremost, the documentary covers Adolf Hitler’s rule in Europe, the expulsion of Jews that evolved into murder, the implementation of concentration camps and the motive behind the Nazi twin experiment. It depicts Eva’s struggles during and even after Auschwitz as she pushes for the investigation of Mengele. However, she comes to forgive the Nazis and opened the CANDLES’ museum dedicated to the victims of the Nazi twin experiment. The documentary ends by mentioning her impact in society as she advocated forgiveness.

Entertainment value: 7/10, Educational value: 8/10


A sobering reality was presented in how the survivors’ lives were heavily influenced by Auschwitz even after they managed to escape. The depicted plight of the concentration camp victims evokes sympathy in viewers, such as the start of the documentary when Eva stepped into present-day Auschwitz and recounted her painful past experiences. Through Eva’s point-of-view, viewers can better understand and sympathise with her predicament. Ultimately, the documentary highlights to viewers the virtue of forgiveness as Eva comes to terms with her experiences.

Technicality: 6/10, Emotional impact: 9/10, Overall score: 8/10

 

The Real Chernobyl

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Figure 7: Workers trying to clear radioactive debris (The Atlantic)

April 26, 1986. A time never forgotten by the masses. “The Real Chernobyl” examines the disaster that still imparts a poignant memory to many, one that is unsettling and eternal. This documentary includes recounts of the few who lived to tell the tale, mainly that of Sergei Parashin, former Deputy Director of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, while not forgetting the other witnesses like safety officers, truck drivers and even the miners who sacrificed and gave their all in order to serve the nation and prevent the aggravation of the tragedy.

The film relays a message of the truths behind the catastrophe, for they were hidden behind the shroud of secrecy of the Soviet government. In addition, the film is interspersed with clips from the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl”, which provides a detailed depiction comparable to the calamity more than three decades ago.

Entertainment value: 6/10, Educational value: 9/10

The cinematography captures scenes of the now contaminated and abandoned ghost town of Pripyat, while the witnesses share their experiences within the ruins of the city where recollections of life were lost in the mists of time. “It’s some kind of a return… to a future unfulfilled.” With the supplement of impressive camerawork, tense music and first-hand accounts of the destruction, this untold story once carpeted beneath lies is greatly represented in this documentary.

Technicality: 8/10

The Chernobyl disaster saw 350,000 people forced to leave their homes, and while this figure is not fully representative of the devastations of the disaster, it serves as a chilling and disconcerting reminder of the horrors that once were.

Emotional impact: 9/10, Overall score: 8/10

With review of “The Real Chernobyl”, we have come to an end of our review of some of the documentaries that we found insightful, entertaining and emotionally impactful. The picture below is a summary of our personal thoughts on the different documentaries discussed!
That said, these scores are merely our personal opinions—you might feel differently. We strongly recommend all of our readers to check out these documentaries for yourselves!

 

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Figure 8: Tally of all the scores of the documentaries

 

Where to Watch these Intriguing Documentaries:

Links to “Last of the Tsars”: 

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=QpWyFcH-1tE

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQSiLOgFNcg

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=KAulAAOQ_9k

Link to “Victims of the Nazi twin experiment”:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uWu6mlQC0N0

Link to “The Secrets Of The Lost Persian Empire”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3bOL8j3ypQ

Link to “Power’s War”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dLpQ2BPz7EE&t=4s

Link to “China’s forgotten emperor”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aeZ7esmQcm4

Link to “The Real Chernobyl”:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xw3SFOfbR84

 

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