For years I had heard that the Sundance Film Festival is a veritable feast for social studies teachers. This year, I was fortunate to be able to attend this internationally-acclaimed film showcase as "press" for Social Education. (1) I traveled to Sundance to learn more about documentary films and to think with those whose business is filmmaking about what role this genre can, or should, play in social studies.
My interest in documentary films was piqued by recent research about the ubiquity of such films in social studies classes, about why and how social studies teachers select and use them, and about what their students learn as a consequence. This research shows that documentary films are an increasingly important staple of the social studies diet--used in class more frequently than newspapers, magazines, or computers. A study of high school U.S. history teachers found that an astonishing 82 percent report using documentary film at least once a week in their classes. (2)
Documentary films can have a powerful impact on what students learn. They can be credited with developing students' empathy; enhancing their awareness of issues, events, and people that typically are not given much attention in textbooks; and influencing students' views on controversial historic and contemporary issues. (3)
It is also clear that students do not approach documentary films as empty vessels--their prior knowledge, social positions, political ideologies, and a host of other factors influence the meanings they create. (4) For example, one study found that high school history students do not recognize a film's perspective unless they disagree with its message. That is, when the filmmaker's point of view aligns with their own, they see no perspective--just truth. This study also reports that many students and their teachers trust documentary films as valid sources of information and as authentic representations that depict what happened in the past. (5)
In sum, the ubiquity of documentary films in social studies courses, along with their potential to influence what students learn, clearly show that documentary films matter in social studies education. This is a view shared by documentary directors and film distributors, who often go to great lengths to ensure that their films get shown in social studies courses.
While the high rate of documentary film usage by social studies teachers indicates that they are amenable to bringing new films into their classrooms, we also know that some films can provoke uproar in some communities. This is more likely to occur when the film is cutting edge--whether it's ahead of the mainstream consensus on what is considered school knowledge, perceived as taking a position on an issue that is highly controversial, or about a topic that some parents or other community members consider taboo. In these cases, detractors tend to claim that the documentary film is biased. Underlying this charge is an assumption that materials used in courses--including documentary films--should be unbiased, objective renditions of reality. Just as some people advocate that teachers should keep their political views to themselves, some argue that people who make documentary films should do the same. Failing that, their films should not be used in schools.
Perhaps it's the word "documentary" that causes people to think that such films should be "objective." Documentation implies a neutral process--unearthing evidence rather than making a story out of it. Films that are judged to fail the objectivity test are suspect. When this occurs, accusations erupt that the film lacks "balance," and if shown, must be censored or countered with equally powerful portrayals of competing perspectives.
As a case in point, teachers in Federal Way School District, south of Seattle, were criticized for showing An Inconvenient Truth (a 2006 documentary, featuring Al Gore on the perils of global warming) because, as one parent argued, "Condoms don't belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. …