Note: Not the top 10 movies or anything like that. This is more about contemplating what we could teach by showing movies to kids. Well, teenagers in some cases.
I remember watching movies in school back in the day. We didn’t have projectors like you see in American media. We had a small TV for our 25 or so pupils. Our choices were pretty limited also. I remember seeing Ronja Rövardotter multiple times, which would have been fairly new in those days, and I remember seeing a version of the New Testament several times, but I’m not sure which one. there wasn’t much discussion around these, except for our very religious teacher explaining all the ways the latter deviated from the Bible. (Note: Separation of church and state isn’t really a thing in Finland. We do have a freedom of religion, but at the same time there are two churches, Evangelic-Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox, which have a special status. Religion is actually part of the national curriculum, but it’s actually more about the history of religion than discussing religious teachings. It’s also lumped into the same subject with ethics – a connection which doesn’t feel good to an atheist such as myself, as there is an implication that ethics is somehow based on religion, which it definitely isn’t.) There might have been a movie about WWII from Finnish point of view as well like Tuntematon Sotilas (Unknown Soldier) or Talvisota (Winter War), but I’m not sure. We did also have a field day at the cinema to see Schindler’s List, which became and still is one of my favorite movies. One might even argue that while I didn’t exactly think about that day when I decided to write about this, there is a causal link between that and this article. It is a powerful movie.
I am a teacher, albeit in higher education, so I do have interest in this topic. Part of this is that while schools are evolving to match the needs of today, there is still a lot more work to do. Also, I don’t really know exactly what’s going on in primary and secondary schools, so sorry to all my colleagues from those institutions. I don’t really want to overstep. This is just something fun for me to do.
Easy answer to the question would be to use films based on actual historical events here, but I wouldn’t want to do that. History as taught in schools is already a very specific look at the topic (and from what I’ve heard the point of view has shifted from wars to the lives of common people in the recent years) and taking a movie, which usually is only a cursory look at a subject, might only serve to obfuscate the truth further. Movies set in some point in history, but which don’t claim to be based on specific events or people, feel much better. However, those are not the only ones I’m going for. On the other hand, while I was doing (admittedly pretty cursory) research on the subject, I did eventually include some actual biographical movies.
Of course, the idea isn’t just to watch movies. There needs to be discussion afterwards, so that the themes don’t get muddled. Paraphrasing Lindsay Ellis, the nazis in American History X are bad, but they are also made to look quite badass, so teachers should still be making sure to communicate what they want to communicate if they end up in such a situation.
I did find myself leaning towards movies from outside the US. There’s one such film (and while I didn’t check, I’m pretty sure there’s financing from the US behind some of these movies), but that one is hardly a product of the Hollywood system. This is not to say that US films are necessarily bad in this regard, but they also tend to be boring. If I would have gone in this direction, movies such as Moonlight, Room (not The Room, although while I’ve never seen it, that one also seems to have hidden depths if you look at it from the point of view of seeing someone trying to come to terms with their pain), Hidden Figures and maybe even Ex Machina would have been strong contenders.
Others I couldn’t find room for include Satantango (while it’s depiction of the fall of communist rule is interesting, it’s hard to justify a seven hour movie), Nana (so little happens in that movie that you just couldn’t keep the pupils awake, even though that’s exactly why it’s so great), Joyeux Noël (goes against the specific event rule, although an armistice just to spend Christmas and play football with the opposing side would be something worth discussing in a class setting) and No Man’s Land (finding a common ground between enemies is once again great, but ten movies is ten movies – being strict about this is the fun part for me).
But here’s a key question: In order to make such decision as this, you should really know what you want to teach. It’s very different if we want to teach art with these movies. I decided not to do that. Instead I have a very specific aim: empathy. If a pupil can see how different people feel about the world, maybe they can understand them better, which should, hopefully, turn into sympathy and less racism, homophobia and so forth. Hopefully these movies can also teach about other subjects on the side.
I’ve now written 900 words without getting to the actual meat, so here we go:
4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days
With sexual violence, full frontal female nudity and a central theme of abortions, this might seem like a hard sell and it is, but on the other hand, it’s also a great look at how people had to live behind the Iron Curtain, namely in Romania. It’s a movie about a Romanian student in the 80s, who tries her best to help her friend get an abortion, which is very illegal in the country at the time. I guess this would be somewhat of an easier sell in countries where abortion is less controversial subject and where there is actual sex education.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day
A wonderful depiction of detiriorating mental health due to unknown disease. This is the only movie from the US on the list.
Sun of Saul
While the aforementioned Schindler’s List is great, here’s the problem: It puts a white, rich man in the center of it, even though it’s not actually his problem. This is where this movie can come in. It’s about what was going on in the concentration camps from a much more personal point of view. Schindler’s List does do this right in parts as well, especially the long first act before Schindler is even in the picture, but the horrible conditions are much more closer to the audience here with the camera pushing very close to the main character at all times.
People from the Middle East are people too. Again, this is a very personal view and an account based on the director’s own lifestory. Something like A Separation might work here as well, but this might be a story that’s closer to the intended audience, so perhaps the message is better received.
When the Wind Blows
A very different depiction of the Cold War. An elderly couple survive a nuclear strike and try to follow the guidelines given to them in order to survive, but there’s a problem: as the reasons guidelines dpn’t make sense to them (because they aren’t explained very well), they start to break them casually, which has horrible consequences.
In the Loop
This wasn’t rated in the US despite receiving an Oscar nomination. Probably because they knew MPAA doesn’t appreciate that kind of language and they wouldn’t be treated very fairly. What’s the certification in Finland? K-3, which means that basically you can’t bring very small children, because they might be disruptive to the experience of the rest of the audience. I do like our approach much more. The language doesn’t actually hurt anyone, so why be afraid of it. That’s not the reason for the inclusion, obviously. The reason is that this is a fun depiction of politics. I mean, the people running our countries are often not very competent at it and children should know this as well. At least before they receive the right to vote.
The Lives of Others
Another Iron Curtain movie. This one is more political though. Like In the Loop this is about teaching students not to trust the government. In this case they can learn that the government is not necessarily always on your side. Or there might be forces within the government, who are not afraid of using their position against others for their own benefit. I’m not necessarily advocating for full-on revolution, but people should understand this.
Tom of Finland
Had to get one Finnish movie in here. This is a biographical movie about a Finnish artist known worldwide as Tom of Finland, who was famous for his hypermasculine gay imagery. The movie is about his struggle with his sexuality as well how society sees it. Homosexuality was actually illegal in Finland until 1971 and always came with a prison sentence (which could be probation). Around 1000 men and 50 women were sentenced. There’s still around 70 countries around the world the criminalize homosexuality and when there was an attempt at the UN to make it legal in all memberstates, the US, China and Russia stopped it. While homosexuality has been legal for 50 years now in Finland, it still does come with some stigma attached, so perhaps this could help with that.
Portrait de la jeune fille en feu
A very different portrayal of homosexuality. This time from the female point of view. There’s another history lesson here as well on how women were treated as goods to be traded by their parents.
Grave of Fireflies
A great story about the repercussions of war on the civilian population, who have very little power over the situation, but still have to bear the burden of decisions made by other people.