Great documentaries that changed my viewpoint
February 19, 2010 4:43 PM   Subscribe

About to start teaching a Current Issues class to high school students. Need recommendations about quality documentaries that can supplement what we will cover in the class.

Each week, we'll cover different general topics and analyze how each area around the globe deals with the issue:


- Poverty, homelessness, etc.
- Water issues
- Drugs/Legalization
- Abortion
- Population Growth
- Racism
- Immigration
- Corporations
- etc.

So, I'm looking for great documentaries that will help 'open the eyes' of the students as it relates to one of these topics.

We'll build each week around the documentary and the students will research more information on the topic and how it impacts it in various locations.

Some of my favorite documentaries are from PBS's Frontline. I have access to Netflix too.

Thanks so much for the help!
posted by dealing away to Education (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Anything by John Stossel.
posted by yoyoceramic at 5:11 PM on February 19, 2010

The Corporation was a bit long, but definitely an eye-opener. We also saw The End of Suburbia. I'm excited for you, I loved my Global Issues class in high school!
posted by hellomina at 5:23 PM on February 19, 2010

What a cool class! This is what I can think of right now:

Life and Debt about globalization
The Corporation about corporate power
The Story of Stuff about consumerism (available free online)
The Story of Cap and Trade about cap and trade and global warming (also free online I think)
The Color of Fear about race and racism
God's Country (oldy but goody) about the bottom falling out of the rural economy in the Reagan years
Chicano! (oldy and about history, but provides some great context) about Chicano history and similarly
Eyes on the Prize (or some chunks of it) about the Civil Rights Movement
Dark Days about a homeless community living underground (a way into talking about homelessness)
The Times of Harvey Milk about Harvey Milk and the history of the gay rights movement
posted by serazin at 5:29 PM on February 19, 2010

I've never watched a PBS Frontline documentary that I didn't like, and I use clips from it in class all the time.
posted by brozek at 5:42 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

We watched Life and Debt in an econ class that I attended. It seems to cover more than one of your themes--corporations, poverty/homelessness, globalization, and probably a few more.
Here's the copy straight from that website:
Life and Debt is a feature-length documentary which addresses the impact of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank and current globalization policies on a developing country such as Jamaica.
posted by alcopop at 6:01 PM on February 19, 2010

Best answer: They may enjoy the work of Vanguard journalists at Current TV. You'll have to look around a bit to find what you want, but the length and level of engagement with the issues should work well for your students.

Here are some they have on AIDS, Immigration, etc. Just change your search term in the box to search the others. They don't cover all aspects of your list, but they'll give you some places to start from.
posted by BlooPen at 6:09 PM on February 19, 2010

This isn't a documentary, but I've used it in the past as an essay topic for my students and might be useful to supplement a discussion: the Border Film Project, which gives cameras to immigrants coming from Mexico and law enforcement and Minutemen on the US side. The web site collects the photos, which are presented with only the photographer's name.
posted by queseyo at 6:57 PM on February 19, 2010

Through a Blue Lens is a documentary about drug addicts/problems on the downtown east side in Vancouver. Mark Kelley of CBC did a couple of documentaries spending seven days as a teacher in a struggling B.C. school, and living in a homeless shelter in Montreal. I don't know how easy it would be to find them again. Maybe the CBC website.
posted by sadtomato at 7:00 PM on February 19, 2010

In addition to Frontline I'd suggest mining what you can from Independent Lens. They even provide a lesson plan guide. My absolute favorite EVER is "Please Vote for Me" which is a peek inside three kids running for the position of class monitor in a Chinese Elementary school. It was a very interesting and telling take on the democratic process.
posted by contessa at 7:24 PM on February 19, 2010

Darwin's Nightmare is grim but very well done. It's about the effects of introducing the Nile Perch into Lake Victoria in Tanzania. The Nile perch is expensive, so it is unaffordable to the local population. Instead, it is exported to Europe. The empty planes from Europe that come to load up with Nile Perch bring guns to Tanzania. The fish is also predatory, and has no natural predators in its new home, so it has eaten all the other local species, thus leaving a devastated ecosystem and nothing for the local Tanzanians to eat.

This film would provide an introduction into all sorts of topics: what happens when humans mess with the environment, negative effects of globalization, causes and consequences of social breakdown, etc.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:52 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I thought King Corn was a very good documentary on the sociocultural and political background that underlies the food culture in modern America.
posted by darkstar at 8:21 PM on February 19, 2010

I saw a great documentary at the Los Angeles film festival called City of Borders. The film concentrates on the lives of the homosexual community in Israel and Palestine, and how the conflict and bigotry shapes their day to day lives (Palestinians fight with Israelites, but both Palestinians and Israelites take issue with homosexuality).

A great match, considering the multi-faceted approach.
posted by makethemost at 8:45 PM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I loved Food, Inc., which touched upon corporations, immigration, population growth, health/obesity.

An Inconvenient Truth, a must about global warming.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, can exaggerate at times, but would be a good one to study a specific corporation. (And I think it would definitely help discussions about capitalism, exploiting other economies, consumerism, etc.)

Who Killed the Electric Car?, about oil consumption and corporations, would make a great complement to something like The End of Suburbia.

And I have never seen these five documentaries about water, but I tend to trust Treehugger.
posted by blazingunicorn at 10:45 PM on February 19, 2010

Response by poster: These are all ideas I was looking for. Thank you so much everyone! I am looking forward to watching them myself and showing them to the students. Please keep them coming!
posted by dealing away at 12:02 AM on February 20, 2010

Best answer: The 11th Hour -- Far more engaging than An Inconvenient Truth
Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand -- A Planet Earth style piece on Human impact and responsibility
The Cove -- A film made to protect the ocean, and more specifically, dolphins.
Acid-Test -- Water issues and the acidification of the oceans
Why We Fight -- About the Military Industrial Complex (a bit conspiratorial)
Murder on a Sunday Morning might be interesting for race and legal issues (I've not yet seen it)

One more I just discovered (via the wikipedia page for Oscar winning documentaries): Design for Death traces 700 years of history leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I appreciate documentaries that attempt to explain actions in broad context instead of merely "documenting" the immediate causes and results.

Now you've got me digging for obscure documentaries! :D
posted by Galen at 4:16 AM on February 20, 2010

Poverty and racism: Lalee's Kin: The Legacy of Cotton is heartbreaking (and eye-opening, depending on what standard of living you're used to).

Might not be considered "appropriate" by your school's powers-that-be, but Very Young Girls is about young teenage girls drawn into prostitution by much older pimps (unsurprisingly).

Crime & the justice system: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.

Religion, coming of age: The Devil's Playground, about Amish teens' sanctioned "break" from Amish mores into the wider world, complete with fast cars, rap, cigarettes, liquor and drugs.

Homeless children: Streetwise, a classic. Unfortunately, I'm not sure it's available on DVD or even videotape, but you might be able to eBay a copy.
posted by scratch at 8:14 AM on February 20, 2010

Kevin Kelly's well-categorized True Films reviews may be helpful.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 9:51 AM on February 20, 2010

Frontline's Merchants of Cool is all about how corporations market to teens. If I were still teaching, I would absolutely use it in the classroom. A lot of my students saw their consumer choices and their musical tastes as their most important method of self-expression. This documentary shows that the brands and corporations these kids support are really only interested in their money.

Part of The Corporation--an interview with a marketer who targets young children--ties in nicely with this.
posted by TEA at 9:52 AM on February 20, 2010

Just FYI--there's good-quality downloadable teaching material--lesson plans, group assignments--on the Corporation website that hellomina linked to.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:36 PM on February 20, 2010

I've used Merchants of Cool in a high school class recently. It's kind of dated (music and dress is kind of funny to today's teens--Insane Clown Posse makes them laugh), but with that sort of warning, it sparks some really good conversation, especially if you modernize by talking about Facebook and how it isn't really "free".
posted by RedEmma at 2:29 PM on February 20, 2010

Ghosts, about the system of cheap immigrant labour from China, leading up to the story of how 23 cocklepickers drowned in the sea in the north of England a few years ago, is interesting. There is lots of scope for different topics for discussion: global movement of labour, immigration and emigration, health and safety, the fine line between criminal business and legitimate business, and so on.
posted by Jabberwocky at 5:37 PM on February 20, 2010

After Innocence tells the stories of several men who spent years in prison for crimes they didn't commit. Very powerful film.
posted by trillian at 5:07 AM on February 23, 2010

Today I was twice recommended The End of Suburbia. Haven't seen it yet myself.

Are our answers fulfilling your needs?
posted by Galen at 10:10 PM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: Yes, everyone! Thank you so much for your help! THis really helped and I've been using clips from the websites and videos you've all mentioned. It really has been eye-opening!
posted by dealing away at 12:38 PM on March 10, 2010

« Older Puzzling response to submission   |   Most interesting annual events in the US. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.