12 Documentaries To Watch With Your Family

Delaney Ruston – Before delving into some dynamite documentaries, I want to say how cool it is that “Parenting in the Screen Age” is uniting parents in Chapter Clubs around the country to talk about solutions for screen time issues.  While some nights I worry about the forces in our society that will be pushing for more screen use by kids post-COVID, other nights I feel optimistic when I think of the power we have when we come together to ensure more balanced screen time. Recently we hosted an online Chapter Club event — and we have another one coming up.

If you are like me, you are home these days with our kids. and friction can be just a small action away. These days the term “invisible parenting” keeps going through my mind. There are so many times I see my kids, and my natural question-asking self wants to speak up …“What are you doing about…” or “Why are you on your phone now?” But I hold it in and I quite literally bite my lower lip and think, “invisible parenting, invisible parenting.” I made that term up to remind myself that being really intentional about giving my kids space, lots of space is so key. (They are 19 and 21 now.)

Invisible parenting requires staying involved but working on what I can work on, like giving them a lot of space and letting them lead.  For example, I let my kids decide more often than me when we chat or take a walk. I also make it a point to discuss harder issues like how to handle the frequent disappointments that keep happening because of this relentless pandemic. 

Invisible parenting also means to pick my family-time ideas wisely. I rarely get to pick what we watch as a family since I appreciate they have the things they want to see. And, this is where documentaries come in. 

I know our kids see a ton of media that I frankly hate the messaging (don’t get me started), but good documentaries are a part of the work I have done to steep my kids in values around broadening their world views and sparking curiosity. 

One mom effort I am proud of is making sure my kids watched lots of empathy-building and mind-expanding documentaries growing up.  And when I get to pick the movie night, I still mostly pick documentaries. I pick ones that have a high likelihood they will like it. 

Today I have picked some docs that are sure to expand your youth’s knowledge of the environment, society, politics, and most of all, human nature and the human condition. Also, I include discussion questions for some of the films. (My past documentary recommendations have been quite popular.)

You will need to decide which of these film suggestions aligns with your child’s age, interest, and maturity level. 

A quick pro-tip: Consider taking a couple of nights to watch a whole film. Suggest to your kids (especially documentary-hesitant kids) that you only watch half the film to start (or even less). Each time you watch part of the film, you will have some wonderful topics to discuss. 

Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken One day, I came home in the afternoon, and my kids were on the couch laughing, and I saw they were watching this documentary. I joined in, and we have had many ongoing conversations about the film long after the viewing — great topics to explore regarding fast food, marketing, struggles of farmers, and much more. 

Stop At Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story This is a gripping movie about Lance Armstrong. I have seen other films about this story, but this film is the best, in my opinion. 

Wow, the scenes with Betsy Andrue are so powerful. One person in the film says, “She was the first to say, I don’t care, I’m going to tell the truth.” Later someone in the film says about Lance Armstrong, “His modus operandi was don’t attack the message, attack the messenger.”  To see how much Andrue endured by speaking up and how vilified she was — boy, so disturbing. 

The whole topic of lying and all the complexities around lying is poignant right now. All people sometimes do some variation of small lies, and then there is something completely different — large scale lying. What are other examples or extreme scenarios? What can we all do to live our lives as honestly as possible? What is happening with test-taking and honor codes in our kids’ lives? 

Knock Down The House This film follows four women as they put in blood, sweat, and tears to try to win a congressional seat. We see their commitment in real-time and learn of the reasons why they are working 24/7. All our girls and boys need to know that we need good, fair people to consider running for office — including, perhaps, even them! Showing them this film will plant that important seed. 

Crip Camp What a powerful film to build empathy. It starts off at a summer camp for young people with all sorts of disabilities — many in wheelchairs because of contracting polio or they are born with cerebral palsy. We follow wonderful characters who are deeply committed to caring for others and fighting to end the stigma and the roadblocks people with disabilities have sustained all these years. Growing up in Berkeley, California, I have always felt a bit of pride that people in my city were central to the fight for rights for people with disabilities.

Magnus I know there is quite a buzz about The Queen’s Gambit. I have some recommendations for documentaries on the subject. Magnus follows Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen, a young Norwegian trying to become a World Chess Champion. I love how it starts when you hear from his father about when Magnus was a child he thought chess could be a good game for him, and thus he gave him his first set. But the best part of the movie is when Magnus is blindfolded and plays many people at the same time. There is a strange turn at the end when we learn what he is doing with part of his time. (By the way, I have a serious bone to pick with the film for having its promotional images showing Bill Gates. Have your kids watch for Gates in the film and see what they think of having used his picture on the promo materials.)

Bobby Fischer Against the WorldThis film is a fascinating character study and contains a plethora of past footage of Fischer. It starts out a bit dense regarding the history of the relationship between America and Russia — but stick with it. 

This film was bittersweet for me. My father loved chess and taught it to me when I was young. I liked to play, but I was no champ. My dad, he was good. I knew that because people would tell me so. My dad was a loving man but things were often really hard — he had paranoid schizophrenia since before my birth. 

Seeing Fischer’s life story unfold is an emotional journey. His story provides a platform for talking about mental illnesses.  

Finally, I want to add that both these chess films can spark interesting conversations about the intense pull of games and the human desire to be challenged. How does Fischer’s and Magnus’ love of chess compare to those that love playing and experiencing the challenge of video games? In what ways are chess and video games similar? Different? 

 Screenagers MoviesNow more than ever, people are finding hope and solutions in our two movies. As most of you know, during these times, we offer both of our movies to rent directly and offer ways for communities to host it for their members. Since the shutdown, we’ve had 300 or so community online events, and people are so appreciative of the help the movies are providing. They often tell us that having a whole community, such as a school — with parents, teachers, and students all seeing the films — really brings people together to discuss topics and solutions to screen time, academics, mental health, parenting, social media, human connection and so much more. Last week Bank of America offered it to 1,000 employees, and the 4th largest school district in the US, Miami Dade County, showed Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER to 600 of its counselors.

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate NutcrackerThis film is sweet, but honestly not remarkable. I watched this with my daughter, who has danced a lot in the past and agrees with my assessment, but we did enjoy watching it together. A wonderful choreographer and dancer, Debbie Allen, has a studio in LA where she gives access to dance to kids that don’t have the financial resources to pay for classes. The documentary follows the production of the performance and how the dance opportunity inspires and changes the direction of many kids’ lives. (My favorite dance documentary is First Position — so check that out as well) 

 My Octopus Teacher This movie is making the rounds right now for good reason. An awe-inspiring journey into the ocean and into our natural world from a heartwarming human perspective. My daughter couldn’t stop talking about how much she loved this film and how it made her cry. 

 Pump This 2014 documentary film is about the history of petroleum-based fuel consumption and solutions moving forward. I watched this recently and plan to share it with my family the first chance I get. My jaw dropped when I learned of the massive conspiracy to get rid of public transit systems in cities many years ago. While the film is dated in ways, it is still very relative, informative, and has good pacing. 

 Surfwise This is such a wacky story that will make one appreciate how off-the-grid some families have been and brings up all sorts of discussion, like what is “fair” for a father to do. It is also a reminder that there are many ways to live life, and right now, stepping away from all our frustrations and worries about what we expected and wanted for our kids and to breathe into the bigger picture of our long, wacky lives. 

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