Non-fiction and documentary film is a great way for students to begin to understand the world around them. We see this in the historical documentaries by Ken Burns and science documentaries like the BBC series Planet Earth.
But films can do so much more than list historical facts.
Docs like I Am Not Your Negro can help students begin to understand other people and their cultural experience. The idea of listening to the perspectives of others is an important skill that seems to be missing in contemporary American culture, and one that can be nurtured through documentary films.
Documentaries can also help students understand the truth of their inner lives. In much the same way that someone might journal or write a personal essay, documentary films like Tarnation and Sans Soleil can often be explorations of personal experiences.
I’ve written before about how teachers can use fiction films and film theory to teach literature. But the weight of a film being “based on a true story” is even more impactful when it comes in the form of documentary. Watching documentaries can help spark important conversations in the classroom, inspire students to think differently about themselves and others, and help them begin to understand that their localized experience is but one in a vast chorus of experiences around the world.
These are some of my recommendations for films to screen with high school students. Because some of them contain mature subject matter, you might want to preview them first, and ask for parent permission to screen them.
Politics & Culture
Fahrenheit 11/9 (USA, 2018)
From director Michael Moore, this persuasive essay style of doc explores our contemporary political scene, and uses powerful testimony and visual evidence to critique not just conservatives, but even the liberal establishment.
I Am Not Your Negro (USA, 2016)
Based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, this film pieces together excerpts of Baldwin’s writings, speeches and TV appearances, and historical footage to create a powerful examination of race in the US.
Art & Creativity
Exit Through the Gift Shop (USA, 2010)
Street artist Banksy is known for his clever political statements around the world, including the most recent self-destruction of one of his artworks that was sold at auction. This doc explores the nature of art vs commerce through the eyes of a shopkeeper, Mr. Brainwash, searching for the anonymous street artist.
Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry (Germany, 2012)
Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei is known around the world for his powerful imagery, sculpture and installations. But what is the role of an artist in society, and how can art become a political statement? When he bumps heads with the Chinese government, we see how far he is willing to go.
History & Civics
Regret to Inform (USA, 1998)
A Vietnam War widow journeys to the place in Vietnam where her husband was killed decades ago. This personal journey explores the impact of war on women in the US, and also on the lives of Vietnamese war widows. This powerful doc goes beyond textbook facts and dates to reveal the human impact of war.
Night and Fog (France, 1956)
Director Alain Resnais explores the holocaust through archival footage which contrast with peaceful settings of the European countryside nearly a decade after WWII. More than a historical documentary about genocide, this powerful film explores human nature and how time allows us to forget the unforgettable.
Tarnation (USA, 2003)
This frenetic personal essay explores the shocking life of a man who reflects on his family history, revealing some unsavory actions by his grandparents. This is a damning examination of mental illness and our inability to understand the powerful effects it has on the lives of families.
Sans Soleil (France, 1983)
Chris Marker’s expansive personal essay explores some of his favorite themes like memory, culture, place and ritual. A film for advanced art, literature or philosophy students, this film pushes the documentary genre into new territory.
Michael is an award-winning media arts teacher, speaker and consultant in Los Angeles.