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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!