Guest Post: Jennifer Fischer, Co-Founder, Think Ten Media Group
Learning about different religions can feel challenging, even overwhelming. Fortunately, the world of film offers opportunities to improve religious literacy while also increasing empathy and understanding. Films are powerful learning tools, and most of us have at least one potent memory associated with a particular movie. Films are also a key method of storytelling in the modern era. Storytelling is an essential part of being human, and films engage us in a unique way. As a result, films allow students to make essential connections with individuals who may have a different faith from their own. The films outlined below, and their associated resources, make it easy to bring the religions of the world into your classroom.
Documentary Films with Educational Resources
Big Sonia follows the life of Sonia Warshawski, a Jewish teenager living in Poland when the German army invades in the 1930s. Her father and brother were shot, and her sister disappeared. Then, she and her mother became slave laborers and were finally deported to a death camp. Now in her nineties, Sonia is a vibrant woman who speaks to students and prison inmates about her story of unimaginable suffering. Importantly, it’s also a story of hope, resilience, and a refusal to hate. Free curriculum resources for this film are available here.
Francesco offers an intimate look at Pope Francis. The Award-Winning Director, Evgeny Afineevsky (known by many for Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom streaming on Netflix), gained unprecedented access to Pope Francis and dives deeply into Pope Francis’s life and church politics. Journeys in Film created a curriculum guide, available in English and Spanish, that features topics like the environment and migration. It also explores Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in a lesson titled “Children of Abraham” and includes a final lesson that delves into issues specific to the Catholic Church. You can download the guide here.
Rebel Hearts is a powerful new documentary that highlights the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary who bravely stood up to the patriarchy of the Catholic Church in the 1960s. They fought for equality, their livelihoods, and their own freedom against an all-powerful Cardinal who sought to keep them in their place. Their bold acts of faith, defiance, and activism turned the Church upside-down, helping to reshape our society in ways that continue to resonate more than fifty years later. From marching in Selma in 1965 to the Women’s March in 2018, they challenged the notion of what a nun and a woman were supposed to be. Moreover, they continue to take a stand today. In teaching religious literacy, it is important to highlight the stories of individuals who are strong in their faith and yet unafraid to challenge religious institutions. This film does just that. Journeys in Film has created a curriculum guide that encourages students to explore a variety of topics, including U.S. History, societal change, powerful institutions, and religious art.
Both Francesco and Rebel Hearts are available through Discovery Plus as well as other rent/purchase platforms.
The Story of God with Morgan Freeman is a National Geographic documentary (available through Disney Plus) highlighting the world’s five major religions.
Narrative/Fictional Films with Educational Resources
An American Tail was one of my favorite movies as a kid. It is also a film about Jewish immigration. The heroic mouse in the film, Fievel Mousekoewitz, comes to the U.S. with his family from the Ukraine. So, it is also a film that offers openings for talking about current events in the Ukraine, as well as the history of the Ukraine and its Jewish community. Teach with Movies has resources available for this film.
Gandhi is an award-winning biopic that tells the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s life and the non-violent resistance movement he led to free India from the British Empire. The film offers opportunities for students to learn about nonviolent action, Hinduism, and Islam. It’s a popular film to screen with students, and various educational guides are available online.
Spirited Away is a beautiful, animated film from Hayao Miyazaki that captivates young and old alike. It portrays numerous Japanese folk traditions, including Shinto Shrine motifs and perspectives. Many individuals have used the film as a jumping off point for learning more about the ancient Japanese religions of Shintoism. Film Education and Into Film both have resources available for this movie.
The Cup is a beautiful film that tells the heartwarming story of two young Tibetan refugees who arrive at a monastery-in-exile in India. They quickly disrupt its serene atmosphere because of their love for soccer. One of the boys, Orgyen, is a soccer fanatic who is determined to see the finals of the World Cup. He sets out to organize the rental of a TV set for the monastery. The enterprise becomes a test of solidarity, resourcefulness, and friendship for the students and monks. Journeys in Film’s curriculum guide for this film features a lesson on Buddhism.
Wadjda is an inspiring narrative film directed by Haifaa al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first woman director. The film follows Wadjda as she struggles to earn enough money to buy a bicycle. Typically, boys and men, not girls, ride bicycles. But Wadjda is ready to change that! Journeys in Film created a free curriculum guide for this film, which includes a lesson on the Quran. Wadjda is available on Amazon.
And, for additional resources about using film to teach about Islam and counter Islamophobia, please check out my post on this topic, recently published on the Religion Matters blog.
About the Author
Jen Fischer is a writer, film producer, and teaching artist whose work focuses on highlighting shared human experiences to cultivate empathy and understanding. Her films have screened across the United States and abroad and have been featured by NBCLatino, ABC, Univision, Fusion, NBCBLK, Vice News, etc. with her film “THE wHOLE” premiering at Amnesty International’s 50th Anniversary Human Rights Conference. In addition to Video Librarian, you can also read her work in Edutopia, Ms. Magazine, and Parents Magazine, among other sites. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Journeys in Film. She has also developed curriculum for LA’s BEST, the Metta Center for Nonviolence, and AcadeMe+ and has worked in conjunction with the Outreach Center for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, where she received her M.A. She holds a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. You can find her on Twitter @IndieJenFischer.