Using films to encourage reflection and critical thinking in your teaching

Noam Schimmel shares advice on how to leverage the pedagogical and emotive power of films to support your teaching

Noam Schimmel's avatar
University of California, Berkeley
15 Oct 2021
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Advice on using films to support your teaching

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Film can be a powerful tool in teaching. By presenting multiple perspectives in engaging and emotive ways, films can enable students to gain a better understanding of, and empathise with, the life experiences of individuals and communities far removed from their day-to-day reality.

Taking my teaching on human rights as an example, film powerfully depicts the life experiences of survivors of extreme human rights violations as well as the extraordinary human capacity for resilience and renewal. My students are often inspired by the actions of human rights defenders, who model great conscience, courage, tenacity and perseverance. Films can have a memorable impact where other teaching mechanisms might struggle.

Here, I explain how this medium can be used in tandem with other teaching materials to explore challenging concepts: empathy, activism, individual perspective and political context.

Use film to build students’ empathy     

To foster engagement with potentially overwhelming subject matter, consider using segments rather than showing a full-length feature film.

Girl Rising is a pedagogically powerful film on the rights of girls; I divide it into “country chapters” and assign one each week. Students expand their knowledge and empathic connection with each viewing, enabling them to critically engage with human rights topics that impact the lives of girls globally.

Each 15-minute segment is a self-contained narrative of a girl from Ethiopia, Haiti, Peru, Cambodia, Egypt, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Nepal or India, illustrating human rights challenges such as child marriage, access to education and domestic violence, and responses to them.

After nine weeks, students have watched the full film and analysed and synthesised all the narratives. Students can explore the commonalities and differences in the personal stories and make connections between the individual experiences and the advancement of human rights.

Complement film with other media

Articles from media sources such as newspapers can be used to anchor core concepts presented in a film and to provide additional perspectives and context.

I accompany the film Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai, with articles by and about the human rights defender from sources such as the New York Times and the Guardian. The film illustrates the ways in which individuals and communities can mobilise to advance freedom and justice, and the articles help students see the broader picture.

Assignments for discussion and analysis

Asking students to write film reviews allows them to generate a personal commentary and perspective that is more descriptive and analytical. This synthesis helps deepen students’ understanding of the subject matter and films, as well as strengthening their skill in self-expression through writing.

Provide students with essay prompts on key themes. In my case, this could be practical policy responses to human rights violations or psychological and social sources of resilience among those surviving human rights violations. Essays of 3,000 to 4,000 words allow students to reflect on several films and the substantive issues they address.

Discussions in class and online enable students to bring the diversity of their life experiences into the learning environment. Students share and reflect upon experiences from work, volunteering, personal life, family and their own knowledge. These seminars are characterised by dynamic discussion that opens opportunities to delve further into the historical, cultural, social, economic and political aspects of human rights.

Provide information and brief three- to six-minute mini lectures that complement the opinions and perspectives offered by students. It also helps to signpost readings and other resources for students to explore beyond the course syllabus.

Film in the classroom and at home

Viewing a film together as a class in the classroom can be a powerful shared experience. That is how I screen most full-length feature films. But I also find students respond very well to watching some films at home, particularly shorter ones.

The chapter extracts from Girl Rising can be watched by students at home and serve as excellent springboards for seminar discussions. Shorter films available through New York Times Op-Docs and the Guardian Video section, for example, as well as short clips from NGOs can serve as an opening to class and offer an entry point to reflect on articles and books addressing related subjects and themes. An example might be There You Go by Survival International which, in just over two minutes, offers an ethical critique of development and its impact on indigenous and tribal peoples from a human rights perspective.

Emotionally distressing films and subjects

Films about human rights can be extremely distressing, ethically and emotionally. They often illustrate with graphic honesty and intensity, violence and severe human rights violations. For some students the films are shocking visually and in the topics they address. For others, the topic may be familiar but not the cinematographic depiction of it.

When selecting films, it is necessary to be mindful not to overwhelm students but also not to hide hard truths from them, which in the case of human rights can be a difficult balance. Make students aware of challenging thematic content and visual images of films. Where appropriate or relevant, share your own reactions to the films, and the ways in which they challenged you. This makes students aware that everyone can experience distressing emotions when viewing such films.

It is an effective way to acknowledge that many subjects have personal resonance, whether we are teachers or students. I emphasise the importance of being sensitive to the way films can touch upon intimate personal histories and contemporary experiences of difficult topics such as discrimination, exclusion, persecution and violence. Invite students to take breaks as needed, to speak to you after class, and email any questions, concerns or thoughts about the films and the issues they raise.

Try to present films that depict goodness, positivity or achievement as well as troubling or disturbing themes. I include films that illustrate examples of resilience, human rights activism and achievements that inspire hope grounded in past and ongoing successes. Students say that the inclusion of these films with their message of human rights possibility and realisation helps keep them emotionally anchored when it is easy to become unmoored by much of what we view.

Mix genres to build social, historical and political context

Drama and documentary can be viewed in tandem to access a range of perspectives and histories focused on a particular issue or event. In teaching about the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, I often screen three full-length films (see Additional Links):

Beyond the Gates tells the story of one Tutsi girl and her community at a school in Kigali before and during the genocide. It makes the enormity of the genocide clear while providing a focused and relatable reflection specific to one community. Based on historical fact, it avoids the Hollywood misrepresentations of the film Hotel Rwanda.

Frontline: Ghosts of Rwanda is a PBS documentary featuring interviews and personal reflections, which provides students with extensive political, historical, legal and ethical commentary on the genocide and the complicity of so many world governments in it.

Finally, The Uncondemned illustrates the role of international criminal and human rights laws in advancing justice in Rwanda and prosecuting the crimes of genocide, sexual violence and rape by profiling lawyers, social activists and genocide survivors. This powerful film is a testimony to the power of survivors to seek and achieve a measure of justice and accountability.

My purpose as a teacher is not to provide a particular theoretical template for human rights and ultimate answers to students’ questions. It is to teach a plurality of perspectives in discussion and empower students to form their own opinions from the knowledge they acquire in class and beyond.

The films and other sources they are exposed to help provide them with a foundation for further study and reflection and may enable them to integrate human rights concerns into their lives as students, individuals and citizens. This same approach could be used across dozens of disciplines to encourage further analysis and engagement with the topics being studied.

Noam Schimmel is a lecturer in international and area studies at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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Many films are available through local libraries, academic libraries and streaming services. The ones available free online are marked with an asterisk.

Girl Rising*

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

Frontline: Ghosts of Rwanda* (PBS)

Beyond the Gates – also marketed as Shooting Dogs

The Uncondemned

There You Go*


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