Building a Documentary Library

Documentary films allow your class to visit new places and gain a deeper understanding of complex issues.

By Erin Bailey

old movie reel

Other than the brief hubbub they receive during Oscar season, documentaries remain a little-seen genre that rarely make it into theatres or even into the local Redbox. This is a shame because documentaries offer viewers a wonderful chance to explore the world, its people, natural phenomena, and historical events. Websites like Documentary Heaven and Documentary Storm offer access to free streaming and downloading, which can save you time and money since many of these films can be hard to find. Like any nonfiction resource, getting an unbiased viewpoint requires a bit of detective work. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Who funded this film?
  • Was it the filmmaker’s intent to make a propaganda piece?

Having a few of these films on hand can help you fill the downtime between tests, occupy your class during an unexpected sick day, and start discussions on topics your students have learned. Here is a very short list of possible choices to help you build a documentary library.

Turtle – The Incredible Journey

Directed by Nick Stringer; 81 minutes; Rated G

While loggerheads are the most abundant species of sea turtles, destruction of nesting grounds, pollution, and shrimp fishing have kept them on the endangered species list. Inhabiting all but the coldest of ocean waters, the loggerheads are able to live in a wide swath stretching from the Alaskan coast to the tip of South America. This film follows one little loggerhead through a life that is sometimes rather slow-moving. 

The narrator refers to this loggerhead as “the turtle” or “she” in order to remind viewers that she isn’t a pet. However, your class might like to start off the viewing by having a naming party for the turtle. For younger viewers, you might want to review the film and note specific scenes for watching. Much of the film is simply watching her swim long distances, which can become a bit tedious. There are beautiful satellite images of the earth, and the film offers glimpses of a variety of species that migrate to the North Atlantic Ocean.

If your viewers are very sensitive, be aware that there is mild peril in the form of crabs and sea gulls when the baby turtles hatch, and later when the loggerhead meets a fishing boat.

Turtle – The Incredible Journey lends itself well to discussions about animal instincts, predators and prey, animal migration routes, and ocean pollution. Students should come away with an appreciation of the diversity of life in the oceans and the need for protection. 

The Story of the Weeping Camel

Directed by Byambasuren Davaa; 93 minutes; Rated PG

This dynamic story is a perfect way to wrap up a study on the characteristics of mammals. Set in the cold Gobi Desert, the story follows one multigenerational family who herds camels and goats for a living. When a newborn camel colt is rejected by its mother, the family must solve the problem before the colt dies of starvation. Eventually, they send two sons to the nearest town to hire a violin player who will perform a Hoos ritual to bind the mother and baby. 

Although this film is subtitled, the reading is minimal as most of the story is told through observation of the family and the animals that surround them. Children will love the scenes featuring the goats who behave very much like human kids. Viewers will have no trouble understanding the frustration of the humans, as well as the newborn camel— as the mother rejects it again and again.

This film earned a PG rating for a prolonged and graphic animal birth scene. You will need to prepare students (and parents) or fast-forward through it. There is also a scene of a young boy bathing and several scenes of adults smoking cigarettes. Overall, The Story of the Weeping Camel is extremely well done and engaging.


Directed by Jeffrey Blitz; 97 minutes; Rated G

The documentary follows eight participants who are preparing for their trip to the national spelling bee in Washington, DC. Each child is unique, and they collectively represent a variety of ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. Your class will chuckle along with the families and bee participants when their hometowns show support by putting up signs featuring words that are spelled wrong.

Consider showing this documentary in smaller segments—ideally as an introduction to a spelling lesson. You might include some of the bee words on your own spelling lists. Because spelling bees emphasize the etymology and origin of words, this film is a good opening for a discussion of how language develops and how knowing a word’s history can be helpful when spelling. 

Viewers should come away with an appreciation of how much time is required to achieve a goal as lofty as the national bee. Likewise, Spellbound is a realistic lesson in the fact that just because you work hard at something, winning isn’t guaranteed.

Lost Boys of Sudan

Directed by Megan Mylan; 87 minutes; Not rated

For secondary students, this documentary is top-notch. The second civil war in Sudan lasted twenty-two years, killed two million civilians, and displaced four million people. This film follows the journey of two Sudanese refugees who make their way to the United States with the dream of going to school and then returning to help their country rebuild. Unfortunately, the reality fell short for Peter and Santino. 

From their first plane ride, to their first hamburger, to their attempts at passing a driving test, Peter’s and Santino’s stories are sometimes comical, sometimes heart-breaking, and always engaging. The documentary does not offer a narrator to explain the actions and consequences of the people involved—not Peter and Santino, not the teachers, not the basketball coach, and not the well-meaning lady from a local church. Instead, director Megan Mylan leaves it up to viewers to sort out the answers, which makes the film a great place to begin discussions about issues such as cultural assimilation, how bureaucracy fails, how people react to those they can’t relate to, why sharing skin color doesn’t equate to a shared culture, and how the work ethic promoted by the United States affects families.

For teens who are prone to complain about their station in life, Lost Boys of Sudan might provide some insight into how others in the world live. In March 2013, 60 Minutes aired a follow-up interview with a few other lost boys, which would make a satisfying conclusion to the study. For more teaching ideas and discussion questions, visit the Lost Boys website.

TED Talks

If you are in need of shorter pieces to engage your class after a test, to wrap-up a lesson, or during a short break, try searching the collection of TED talks. A few that I liked include:

  • BLACK: “My Journey to Yo-Yo Mastery" (11 min)
  • Michael Dickinson: “How a Fly Flies" (16 min)
  • Munir Virani: “Why I Love Vultures" (7 min)
  • Richard Turere: "My Invention That Made Peace with Lions" (7 min)

Related Lessons:

Watershed Documentary

Secondary learners use iMovie to create their own documentary-style film. Although the lesson was designed for researching watersheds, it can be adapted to nearly any topic. If you want to work in an advanced technology project, this is worthy of your time.

What Makes Our Community Special  

This is another good guide for helping younger learners create a documentary-style film. Elementary grades focus on the features of their community to explore filmmaking along with a storybook and computer presentation. It successfully combines many subjects for a multidisciplinary project.

Virtual Field Trips: Saving Time and Money

The suggestions in this article will help you design a virtual field trip to wrap up any topic. The author offers several museum websites, Google maps, and planetariums. Documentary films are another opportunity to expand learning.