Magazine Feature

Lights, Camera, Social Action!

Documentary films can expose students to the world—and inspire them to change it.
Bookmarked 6 times
Illustration by Sean McCabe

In 1995, a 30-minute film called Not in Our Town premiered on PBS. In the years that followed, this documentary about a Montana community rallying against racist hate crimes inspired countless local initiatives and even reached communities in South Africa and Ukraine. By 2007, the grassroots movement documented in the film grew into, an online community that supports civic and school-based efforts to “stop hate and build safe, inclusive environments for all.”

According to Barbara Abrash of the Center for Media & Social Impact, Not in Our Town—and documentaries like it—represent the “creative potential of ordinary citizens” to enact social change and “provide access points for discussion and emulation” about why that change is necessary.

In other words, films that document social activism are gold mines for social justice educators.

Documentary films not only expose students to distant or untold stories, but, as a genre, they represent a long tradition of people with limited power and resources making noticeable social change. And, in the era of Common Core adoption, documentaries can function as informational texts that extend students’ critical literacy skills and encourage them to connect to social justice themes, possibly by making films of their own.


Film as Text

Teachers have been showing films since reel-to-reel projectors became small enough to roll from classroom to classroom—and the effectiveness of their use has varied widely. Angela Aguayo, assistant professor at Southern Illinois University, studies the civic impact of documentary film. She notes that two key questions often affect the likelihood viewers will be moved by a film: “Do those people seem real to me? Does that story seem authentic?”

“When the answer to those questions is ‘yes,’” she says, “the persuasive power of that text seems to be very significant.”

Social justice educators like David Knight forego typical choices, such as Hollywood biopics or shorts produced by educational publishers, choosing instead films and film-based pedagogical strategies that inform and empower students. As a public school teacher in Boston, Knight considers film a tool perfectly suited for deepening students’ close “reading” skills.

“One of my major goals [is] for students to really have a broader view of ‘what is text’ and what can constitute literacy,” says Knight, noting that many of his students are nuanced critical thinkers but read significantly below grade level. “I think film [is] just a great way of really providing access and equity in the classroom.”

Knight recently taught a unit on the meaning of courage. His students began with an essential question: “What does courage look like in [a specific social justice context]?”

They studied this question through the lens of social movements, including immigration reform, the civil rights movement and the Islamic Revolution in Iran. They read and responded to literary and informational texts, conducted interviews with community members, held class discussions and watched films—lots of them.

FEATURED STUDENT FILM: Co-Located … and Loving It?

The film Co-Located… and Loving It? was written, directed and produced by sixth-grade students attending The Young Women’s Leadership School (TYWLS) of the Bronx. This nine-minute film chronicles the daily challenges of sharing a building with students who attend an entirely different school (more than 50 percent of New York City schools are co-located) and documents efforts students from TYWLS and I.S. 117 Joseph H. Wade made to improve their co-located relationship.


TYWLS students produced Co-Located…and Loving It? with the support of teaching artists from Tribeca Teaches, one of five educational programs offered by the Tribeca Film Institute. Tribeca Teaches puts teaching artists in more than 30 schools across the New York boroughs where they teach students the theory and practice of filmmaking, including scriptwriting, storyboarding, interviewing, camera work, editing and other multimedia skills. They also experiment with various types of filmmaking and produce a culminating film to be screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.


Read more about Co-Located…and Loving It?.

“Movie days” in Knight’s classes offer no opportunity for naps or passing notes. Watching critically means Knight expects his students to interact with films, analyzing, questioning, responding and answering questions, such as, “Whose point of view is represented?” “Whose voices are missing?” and “How does what I am seeing connect to what I have seen and read elsewhere?”

Knight views some movies with the whole class and assigns others to small groups. All But Name—a six-minute documentary about an undocumented young man struggling to pay for college due to his ineligibility for financial aid—was one he made sure all his sixth graders saw.

“I had a few students in my classroom who were undocumented and I wanted to also bring that in,” says Knight. “It was connecting back to the essential question, ‘How is this young man courageous, and what’s the setting?’ So obviously he is courageous because he is saying ‘I’m undocumented.’ So that’s [the] start of the whole conversation there where film is the catalyst.”

By nature, both the subject matter and the grassroots production and distribution trajectory of many documentary films lend themselves to creative classroom use by teachers committed to sharing examples of social justice in action.

One of the most famous examples of a documentary giving voice to the disenfranchised is The Thin Blue Line, a 1988 documentary directed by Errol Morris. The film tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man wrongly accused of murder. Its release directly influenced subsequent court decisions to free Adams. The layered social significance of The Thin Blue Line and other documentaries that have moved legal, social or political needles (more modern examples include Paradise Lost and The Invisible War) provide opportunities to explore how the act of telling a story can become a story in and of itself.


Students Sharing Stories

The power of storytelling is why Vee Bravo feels young people shouldn’t stop at watching films. An active filmmaker and the educational director of the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI), he feels strongly that bringing students’ stories to the screen encourages them to see themselves as agents of change.

“Storytelling is an effective way to build community,” says Bravo, noting that documentary is one of the most participatory artistic genres. “By design, it inspires you to engage with the person next to you.”

TFI supports educational programming focused on youth media literacy, media technology and classroom-based digital storytelling. (Check out the TFI student film down the page!) The primary goals: Teach critical viewing and make filmmaking accessible.

Keep It Short!

Watching documentaries is valuable—but so is class time. Short films, such as All But Name, allow teachers to share compelling stories without committing to hours of screening. Most awards shows have categories for short-subject documentaries, and documentary television shows, such as Frontline and American Experience, often stream archived episodes. These online resources also offer a variety of options students could view in just minutes:


Short Of The Week Free Documentaries

New York Times—A Young Immigrant Struggles for a College Education

OSCAR® Winners Short Documentaries

PBS Frontline

PBS American Experience

“You don’t really need equipment to be a storyteller,” Bravo asserts, noting that classrooms where students have space to share stories offer opportunities to reflect on narrative structure—the fundamental element of filmmaking. “It could be as simple as, ‘Hey, Miss, let me tell you what happened yesterday!’ and if you pay close attention, there is introduction to an issue, a character, then there is like a conflict, something that happened to that person and then, usually … a resolution.” Even at schools that don’t have cameras or editing software, says Bravo, students can practice producing scripts and storyboards.

Like many teachers, Knight had limited resources when he and his students set out to culminate their explorations of courage by creating documentary films. With no funding and little knowledge of filmmaking, he partnered with his school’s media specialist and learned iMovie alongside his students. The key, he found, was not allowing technology concerns to upstage the creative process: taking what they had learned about storytelling from watching films and wrapping this knowledge around interviews, research and their own experiences to communicate a message.

“When you watch any type of media, you have to understand that was a created artifact too, that was a created document to elicit certain emotions,” Knight told his students. “It is supposed to make you feel a certain way.”

Knight’s students analyzed the emotional impact of media, such as advertising and song lyrics, as film when designing their storyboards and editing footage.

“It really was a lot about literacy and a lot about helping students to develop a critical lens to view various information that is put in front of them. And I think that it was successful in the way that it pushed students to think. … They were creating knowledge. … They were taking that information and they were using it.”

Like Knight and Bravo, Aguayo sees tremendous value in putting students in the director’s chair. She encourages hesitant teachers to consider that today’s students often arrive in the classroom with technology skills that can take the uncertainty and hassle out of filmmaking projects.

“Accessing a camera and operating a camera … means something completely different in a world where you carry all of those tools in your back pocket,” she observes. And, while the digital divide means not all students are capturing their worlds via smartphone, she says what really matters is encouraging students to “engage with their own stories with the means that they already have.”

She notes that the documentary camera not only gives viewers access to places we don’t normally get access, but that being behind a camera does the same thing by allowing young people to witness their lives as stories worth sharing.

And witnessing, says Aguayo, “is an incredibly political act.”

Check out the New York Times six-minute documentary All But Name here!

Planning to tackle tough content through documentary film? Consider these suggestions:

  • Don’t rely on a film to be students’ only exposure to a topic. Provide supplementary information by “pairing” films with other texts.
  • Prepare students when showing films with violent or disturbing content. If students in your class have experienced trauma, consider another medium.
  • Be aware—and discuss—the difference between journalism and advocacy. If you know a documentary has been called “one-sided,” ask your students what they think about its objectivity. 
  • Offer students opportunities to take action based on films they see in class. Consider community service, letter writing or a filmmaking project of their own. Take action
  • If selecting clips that reflect the overall message and integrity of a film, be sure you’re operating under the guidelines of the TEACH and Digital Millennium Copyright Acts.


Any filmmaker who edits together footage from multiple sources must comply with copyright laws and permissions policies—even students. Begin your classroom filmmaking project with a discussion about fair use. For access to royalty-free video, try a resource, such as Stock Footage for Free.

Students and a teacher, with a blue tint overlay and the Teaching Tolerance Toolkit watermark

Ready to make movies in your classroom? Check out this helpful guide, then share your knowledge with your colleagues.

View Toolkit