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12 documentaries that take you places

If you’ve got an itch to go explore the world right now, these might make you feel like you’ve been there and done that.

A scene from 1999's "Buena Vista Social Club," directed by Wim Wenders.Harvard Film Archive

I once gave my 80-something grandmother a copy of Dr. Seuss’s book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” The gesture was a bit tongue-in-cheek: I’m fairly certain she never got on a plane. (Or, for that matter, a ship, with the possible exception of the Staten Island Ferry.)

It’s probably safe to assume right about now that many of us are feeling a little like Nanny, may she rest in peace, as we daydream about the places we’re still hoping to see. In the grand tradition of armchair travel, which is about all we’ve got for the immediate future, here’s a virtual trip around the globe in the form of a dozen travel documentaries that might make you feel like you’ve been there and done that.


“Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying,” as the good Doctor wrote. “You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing.”

“City of Gold” (2015): The late Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold takes us on a mouth-watering tour of the Los Angeles less traveled: the city’s largely overlooked ethnic enclaves and their immigrant cuisines. In Gold’s charming, eccentric telling, the strip-mall grills and cafeterias of La La Land are the city’s true stars. (Amazon Prime: $)

Jonathan Gold in the 2015 film "City of Gold."Sundance Selects

“Bill Cunningham New York” (2010): Explore the never-ending sartorial parade of New York City’s teeming streets (yes, they will teem again) through the lens of the longtime New York Times fashion photographer. Cunningham, who was born in Boston and never lost his accent, tootled the city on his bike well into his 80s, shooting the street trends and haute couture trendsetters alike. “There’s always the hope that you’ll see some marvelous, exotic bird of paradise,” he said. (free with Amazon Prime)

“Buena Vista Social Club” (1999): The ravishing story of the rediscovered musicians of pre-revolutionary Cuba. An instant classic that made countless viewers, myself included, long to visit the island. There’s still time. (Amazon Prime: $)


“The Irish Pub” (2013): Every doorway is a postcard, and every barkeep is a figment of Joyce’s imagination. But the true beauty of an Irish pub is the easy mingling of all comers, “from 82 to 52 to 22,” as one interviewee says in this beguiling little film. “Respect is what it’s all about in a public place.” That, and maybe a little good-natured slagging. (free with Amazon Prime)

A scene from the 2017 documentary film "Faces Places." Cohen Media Group

“Faces Places” (2017): In one of her last films, the filmmaker Agnes Varda traveled the French countryside with the street photographer known as JR, who flyposts huge photos of locals on the sides of their homes and workplaces. “Every new person I meet feels like my last one,” Varda says, which isn’t a bad way to approach all of life’s random encounters. (Kanopy — free with Boston Public Library card)

“Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” (2013): For 1,200 years, people have been walking the 500-mile pilgrimage route to the shrine of St. James in Galicia, Spain. This film chronicles the trials and revelations of several hikers from various corners of the world, each bringing their own beliefs, and their own burdens. “Every day is a journey,” says one, “and the road itself is home.” (Kanopy)

“Italy: Love It or Leave It” (2011): A gay couple debate whether to move to Berlin, where the German one thinks they’ll feel more at home. So the Italian one, Luca, takes Gustav on a tour of the country. Squeezed into a Fiat 500 that mysteriously changes colors, they visit orange groves, the lake where George Clooney owns a home, and Mussolini’s crypt and gift shop. Spoiler alert: despite Italy’s many problems, they’re staying. “Life is too short not to be Italian.” (Amazon Prime: $)


“Sembene! The Father of African Cinema” (2015): Narrated by Mount Holyoke College Professor Samba Gadjigo, this film traces the groundbreaking career of Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembene. “If Africans do not tell their own stories, Africa will soon disappear,” Sembene once said. His own work dramatizing the continent’s struggles was a lifelong commitment to posterity. (Kanopy)

“Hit the Road: India” (2013): Two goofy white guys, one from Chicago, the other Canadian, compete in the 12-day Rickshaw Challenge, a race across India in the three-wheeled, motorized vehicle known as the tuk-tuk. Despite torrential rain, relentless mechanical problems, and overnight accommodations with just one bed, their spirit of adventure shines through. “Nothing like getting your five senses right into the middle of it,” one says. (Amazon Prime: $)

“They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” (2012): An American professor, touring the former Burma on behalf of the US Embassy, gets an inside look at one of the world’s most isolated nations. The sights are breathtaking; the faces, too. One day, maybe Myanmar will be “the kind of country,” says director Robert H. Lieberman, “where you can speak, read, and write poetry the way your heart tells you to do it.” (iTunes: $)


“Eternal Amazon” (2014): We tend to think of the Amazon rain forest as that vast wild area where piranha outnumber people. But this spectacularly framed film makes a strong case for responsible human management of the region. Cattle raising, pepper farms, and hot-air balloons reveal much more diversity than the impossibly beautiful waterfalls, though there are those too. (free with Amazon Prime)

Christine Powell in the 2013 documentary film "Antarctica: A Year on Ice," directed by Anthony Powell.Music Box Films

“Antarctica: A Year on Ice” (2013): With extensive use of time-lapse photography, a New Zealander who has spent several years working on the world’s least accessible continent shows what life is like on the ice. From the ever-changing terrain to the “fairy dust” of the night-sky Aurora Australis light shows, it’s astonishing. It is also, for the 700 or so “winter-over” researchers and support staff, a bit stir-crazy-making. Not unlike quarantine. (Amazon Prime: $)

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.