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Education

5 must-watch documentaries on education

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I love love love documentaries.

For my money, there’s nothing more engrossing than a well-crafted film about a true-to-life tale. The documentary genre is as rich as it is varied, encompassing everything from breathtaking nature docs to soul-searching personal narratives. And it’s all true! (to a point).

You know how some folks go gaga over the latest superhero flick? I do the same, but for documentaries. I love docs so much, in fact, I even tried making one once. (Please excuse the shameless plug.)

Anyhow, I bring this all up because, in honor of Education Month, I thought I’d share a few of my all-time favorite documentaries on the topic of—you guessed it—education.

Schools and school kids from around the world have starred in some really memorable doc films over the years. If this month’s theme has inspired you to seek a new or unique perspective on education, these five films are for you.

1) Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

Director: Davis Guggenheim | Where to watch: Google Play / Amazon / YouTube

Nothing tugs at the heartstrings quite as hard as watching the hopes and dreams of ten-year-olds crushed right in front of them—but that’s exactly what happens to some of the characters in this unflinching critique of education in America. The film follows five young students from around the country as they and their families try to earn coveted spots at some of the country’s top-ranked charter schools. It all comes down to a lottery: if your name gets called, you’re in. If not, it’s back to the struggling neighborhood public school where, statistically speaking, kids are much less likely to succeed. Waiting for “Superman” is a sobering—scratch that, maddening—reminder that, even in a country as wealthy as the US, a bad education can set a kid back for life.   

Learn more about the film here.

2) Girl Rising (2013)

Director: Richard E. Robbins | Where to watch: Netflix / VHX

The sheer scope of this film is impressive enough—it was filmed in 9 countries on 4 continents—but what really makes Girl Rising shine are its characters. We meet nine different girls, each of whom has an incredible story to share about overcoming societal and cultural barriers—including in the classroom. These girls’ determination to beat the odds, get an education, and show the world what girls everywhere are truly capable of is seriously inspiring. As an added bonus, each girl’s story is narrated by an all-star cast including Meryl Streep, Salma Hayek, and Anne Hathaway.

Click here to learn more.

3) Wiring the Amazon (2014)

Directors: Michael Pertnoy & Michael Kleiman | Where to watch: NYT Op-Docs

This one is actually a short documentary, and the education connection is slightly tangential, but I wanted to mix it up a little. Wiring the Amazon offers at a glimpse at what it takes to bring the power of the Internet to one of the world’s most remote corners: the Amazon rainforest in Peru. With it comes incredible potential to connect a new generation of Peruvians to the world around them—but the sailing isn’t always so smooth. What I love most about this film are the small moments: a young girl giggles with delight as she logs onto her email account for the first time, while a boy Googles a famous Peruvian novelist at night, his face illuminated by the glow of the computer screen. The film underscores what a difference technology can—and does—make in education, particularly in these far-off places.  

This short doc was created for the New York Times’ acclaimed documentary series, Op-Docs. It’s part of a larger project called Web, which you can learn more about here.

4) Please Vote for Me (2007)

Director: Weijun Chen | Where to watch: Netflix DVD Amazon

This film is a little older, and harder to find as a result, but it’s well worth the effort. Please Vote for Me takes us inside an elementary school classroom in Wuhan, China, where students are preparing for arguably the biggest event of the year: electing their class official. Remember, the democratic process is something of a rarity in Communist China, so watching these fledging pols figure it out as they go is half the fun. The real meat of the film, though, is in its examination of what success in the classroom means for these kids as well as their parents (many of whom are every bit as invested in the outcome of the election as the candidates themselves). No matter your cultural heritage, you’ll find something to laugh about—and mull over—in this playful and enlightening doc.

Learn more here.

5) American Promise (2013)

Directors: Joe Brewster & Michèle Stephenson | Where to watch: Netflix / Amazon

I’ve saved the most epic for last: American Promise is a WHALE of a film about race, education, and parenting, shot over the course of thirteen years. (Step aside, Boyhood, there’s a new sheriff in town.) Husband-and-wife filmmaking duo Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson decide to film their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, as the two boys start school at a prestigious New York City academy. Over the course of the film, we watch Idris and Seun grapple with the pressure you’d expect of a hyper-competitive prep school, all while navigating the special complexity that comes with being two of the only black students in an overwhelmingly white school. American Promise is frequently inspiring, occasionally infuriating, and always eye-opening. Don’t miss it.   

Visit the film’s website to learn more.


I hope these education-themed docs inspire you like they’ve inspired me! As always, stay tuned to Global Citizen throughout the month of August for more on this essential theme.