America on film
February 24, 2011 5:05 PM   Subscribe

I teach ESL to new refugees and they have expressed a desire to see movies that tell them about or show America. They want to know about the different landscapes, accents, lifestyles, etc. I'm looking for suggestions for simple, visually descriptive films that feature a wide variety of geographical locations and Americans. Can you think of any?

I think documentaries would be well-received, as well as short films. Their minds are wide open, so as long as the subject matter is "safe for work", anything goes. They just have to be English-language films for which I can also play English subtitles (unless there is little-to-no dialogue or narration--they are not complete beginners).

I have a laptop and can project movies, but I don't have internet access in the classroom (it's a church basement). Any movies I can download or order cheaply and easily would be great.

Thanks in advance for any and all suggestions!
posted by swingbraid to Education (25 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Away We Go?
posted by anniecat at 5:08 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

If it's at a church, so I guess you should probably edit out the first scene of John Krasinski going down on Maya Rudolph.
posted by anniecat at 5:09 PM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: I've never been to the USA, but felt I had a much better idea of its breadth and diversity after watching Stephen Fry in America. He travels to every state, meeting 'ordinary' people and learning what's unique about each region. Your students will get to see lots of beautiful landscapes and hear many different regional accents. Plus, Stephen Fry is wonderful.
posted by embrangled at 5:16 PM on February 24, 2011 [10 favorites]

Was just about to post the same as embrangled.
posted by waterandrock at 5:18 PM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: The Blues Brothers, which also delves a bit into American music. Forrest Gump ranges across America and hits all the major 20th century historical touchstones. It can get a bit caricatured at points, but it's a good jumping-off point for discussion. The middle portion of Into The Wild does a decent job at snapshots of various American regions/people.
posted by kagredon at 5:23 PM on February 24, 2011

This may sound weird, but the opening titles for Up In the Air were fantastic for this. (Good movie that they might enjoy, too, though at that point they'll really only be getting a good sense of sameness of the country's airports and hotels rather than the differences in landscapes, etc.)
posted by scody at 5:25 PM on February 24, 2011

PBS has American Experience and other such programs, which seem to focus more on history.

(And I find the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to be quintessentially "Midwestern".)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:28 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ooh. I just found a program on the PBS page called "Do You Speak American?"
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:30 PM on February 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Road Scholar by Andrei Codrescu.
posted by adamrice at 5:31 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

These might be too "talky" but how about Charles Kuralt's America? It's a series that you might find at the library and I'm sure is "safe for work". He's traveling around the country in a van meeting all sorts of interesting people. It's a very positive & encouraging view of the US and I remember really enjoying them as a kid.
posted by victoriab at 5:35 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

John Paget has a few films that might suit your needs, including the Route 66 documentary that's a state-by-state travelogue narrated by Martin Milner of CHiPs fame. It's pretty straightforward stuff, with a lot of great visuals, that might be easier to parse for ESL learners than some of the more meditative works out there.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:46 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I taught some ESL many many moons ago. My students were thirsty for American culture too. I tried lots of things to give them some understanding of America, and language help.

One thing that I remember working really well is a lesson on baseball and the famous who's on first skit - that skit required them to know the positions of a baseball team, and to think about the language joke being played in the skit.

Do baseball for a few a few days. Vocab about physical activity - running, throwing, hitting. Teach the teams, and all their different Logos. Lots of different vocab with the team logos - and also some culture. What is a Yankee? What is a Diamond Back, and why is it in Arizona?

Then bring in abbot and costello. two famed comedians. watch the skit, then work the class slowly through the dialogue. They have to think about the language, and the better you understand the subtle language, the funnier the joke.
posted by Flood at 6:00 PM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]

Paris, Texas?
posted by vickyverky at 6:05 PM on February 24, 2011

It's a feature-length film, but I recommend "The Straight Story" as a beautiful slice of the midwest farm country and the people therein. Though there are a fair number of colloquialisms, understandably, the dialog is generally simple and sparse.
posted by drlith at 6:08 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions, guys! I can already think of ways to integrate some of these into my class.

embrangled: Do you know if the Stephen Fry DVD comes with English subtitles? The amazon link doesn't say... If so, I think it might work really well.
posted by swingbraid at 6:22 PM on February 24, 2011

Best answer: Schulze Gets the Blues (if you just skip to the part where he hits Texas, there's only 40-odd minutes)

Down By Law (minus the part about pimping, of course)

Fishing with John

Smoke Signals

Beyond these...I think you're on the right track with the above suggestions about the Codrescu or Fry series. People seem to open up to obvious "foreigners" and more importantly, tend to speak a little slower and more distinctly. Especially with some of the thicker accents, this is probably not a bad thing!
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 6:26 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Blues Brothers and Ferris Bueller are both silly fun, but they both provide nice showcases of Chicago and are very "American" films that show a lot of aspects of American culture (albeit farcically in Blues Brothers).
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:27 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, also, watching Hoosiers makes me nostalgic for the rural 1950s childhood I NEVER HAD. And I really think the establishing shots at the beginning do a nice job capturing the beauty of the prairie landscape. The story is fairly simple and easy to follow but showcases a lot of aspects of post-war American culture that persist into today.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:32 PM on February 24, 2011

Easy Rider?
posted by bq at 8:31 PM on February 24, 2011

swingbraid: I know the Australian edition has English closed captions. I'm not sure about the US edition but I'd imagine it probably does. If it helps, Stephen Fry speaks clearly and slowly throughout. I think there were a few open subtitles over the strongest regional accents and Creole speakers.

There are lots of funny moments when Fry gets confused or overwhelmed and the locals have to slow down or explain things to him - I imagine that might be reassuring to viewers who are new to America. The series gently pokes fun at Stephen's outsider status and at America's peculiarities, but the overall narrative is "Wow, this place is BIG and diverse and kind of amazing."
posted by embrangled at 8:37 PM on February 24, 2011

Pee Wee's Big Adventure!
posted by eschatfische at 11:27 PM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Winter's Bone
posted by fso at 7:08 AM on February 25, 2011

What about In America? It's a movie about an Irish family that comes illegally into NYC and tries to carve out a life with very little money. Lots of scenes of living in crappy apartments and dangerous neighborhoods, but the people they meet make the whole experience worthwhile.
posted by CathyG at 7:34 AM on February 25, 2011

Maybe the documentary Babies? There's no dialog, other than brief snippets of parents talking to their children, and since it compares four different countries, even if you understand the English dialog, you don't understand the other three. It might spark interesting conversations about differences between the US and other places, especially if any of the students are from the other countries shown in the documentary.
posted by MsMolly at 9:31 AM on February 25, 2011

David Byrne's True Stories
posted by Tom-B at 11:45 AM on February 25, 2011

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