Blog photo girls watching on chair

Docu­men­taries in the time of Social Distancing

by Jen Dakan

I remem­ber hating docu­men­taries when I was young. They were dull and fuzzy and seemed intended only for people who had nothing better to do. Now I find myself one of those people,” as I seek out docu­men­taries regu­larly, both in theaters and on Netflix. It would not surprise me at all if someday a Waverly student creates a docu­men­tary about what is likely to be the phrase of 2020, social distanc­ing.” Perhaps one of them will become inspired by some­thing here, a short list of some of my favorite docu­men­taries, with some­thing for everyone. 

  1. Spell­bound: (3rd grade and up) A docu­men­tary that follows eight kids from differ­ent socioe­co­nomic and geographic areas as they prepare for the National Spelling Bee in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. It has some tense and sad scenes; kids are upset when they lose. The film has great messages about working hard, self-accep­tance.
  2. Mad Hot Ball­room: (all ages) A docu­men­tary that tracks students from three NYC public schools as they prepare for an annual city­wide ball­room-dancing compe­ti­tion. Some of the 11- and 12-year-old inter­vie­wees discuss the diffi­cul­ties in their lives and neigh­bor­hoods, includ­ing absent parents, drug dealers, and street violence. That said, the kids handle these subjects with poise and remark­able self-aware­ness. They learn about the hard work and dedi­ca­tion required to achieve goals and make dreams come true; they also learn to accept defeat with grace and humil­ity. They develop a sense of pride and self-respect through master­ing different dances.
  3. March of the Penguins: (all ages) Narrated by Morgan Freeman, this docu­men­tary tells the story of the emperor penguins in the South Pole, and their yearly mating ritual and harsh jour­neys to build a family. Expect to cry. 
  4. Jane: (all ages) LOVE! Beau­ti­ful footage. It is about the life and work of Jane Goodall, a pioneer in study­ing primate behav­ior who went to live with chim­panzees in Africa when she was just 26 years old. She was selected because she was not a scien­tist. Through spend­ing years observ­ing the apes’ behav­ior, she made a series of ground­break­ing discov­er­ies that made humans under­stand that chim­panzees are more like us than we had thought. 
  5. Babies: (all ages) I love this movie! So much to discuss with kids. Babies features four fami­lies from differ­ent parts of the world. There are no subti­tles and several differ­ent languages are spoken, but the univer­sal messages of family and chil­drea­r­ing come through easily. It is beau­ti­ful and funny!
  6. Amer­i­can Factory: (best for 5th grade and up) Awarded best docu­men­tary this year. I loved it. This film recounts the initial efforts of a success­ful Chinese manu­fac­turer to bring his busi­ness to the U.S., hiring and train­ing more than a thou­sand Amer­i­can workers in the process. The film­mak­ers let the char­ac­ters and situ­a­tions speak for them­selves, follow­ing the partic­i­pants from both coun­tries as they nego­ti­ate challenging situations. 
  7. The Queen of Versailles: (middle and high) A char­ac­ter-driven docu­men­tary about a billion­aire family and their finan­cial chal­lenges” in the wake of the economic crisis. The film follows two unique char­ac­ters, whose rags-to-riches success stories reveal many of the virtues and flaws of the Amer­i­can Dream. The film begins with the family triumphantly construct­ing the biggest house in America, a 90,000 sq. ft. palace. Over the next two years, their empire falters due to the economic crisis. One of my all-time favorites!
  8. Three Iden­ti­cal Strangers: (6th grade and up) This one was grip­ping. I did not read anything about this movie going into it and it kept surpris­ing me with what I saw as plot twists but is actual life. This film exam­ines a set of Amer­i­can iden­ti­cal triplets who were adopted as six-month-old infants by sepa­rate fami­lies, unaware that each child had broth­ers. The sepa­ra­tions were done as part of an undis­closed scien­tific nature vs. nurture twin study” to track the devel­op­ment of genet­i­cally iden­ti­cal siblings raised in differing circumstances. 
  9. The Biggest Little Farm: (all ages) So beau­ti­ful! A film made by film­mak­ers! The inspi­ra­tional story of how a Los Angeles couple quit the city, moved an hour north of one of the most polluted metro­pol­i­tan centers on Earth, and pursued their dream of growing their own food. A first­hand account of the ups and downs of a trial-and-error attempt to start a biodi­verse agri­cul­tural oper­a­tion on land that had long since been stripped of nutri­ents. Watched by our students in AP Envi­ron­men­tal Science and they loved it!
  10. O.J.: Made in America: (middle and high) The 2017 Oscar winner for Best Docu­men­tary Feature. It is a five-part, seven-hour exposé on the life and legacy of O.J. Simpson, exam­in­ing the foot­ball star’s life and the murder trial that ripped the country apart in the 90s. Rather than focus­ing solely on the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman and the subse­quent trial, this incred­i­ble docu­men­tary places the Simpson saga into a larger context, high­light­ing the ways in which it said more about race and Amer­i­can culture than any other event that took place in the second half of the 20th century. It is excel­lent, I have watched it more than once!