7 Powerful Documentaries on Netflix to Watch in Class

I have a confession to make. I use Netflix regularly in my classroom. You might think I am a lazy teacher for putting Netflix in my lesson plans, but hear me out. Although I would love for my students to travel the world and interact with people from different backgrounds, it is not realistic. That is where film can provide a link for students to see, hear, and emotionally connect with people’s stories from around the world. Films can inspire students in a way that textbooks cannot.

Before Netflix, documentaries were not mainstream. They were expensive or hard to find, since they appealed to a niche audience. About two years ago I thought about canceling my Netflix account. In my opinion, the content was getting stale and I wondered if the monthly subscription fee was worth it, but that has changed. My love of Netflix grew as I was able to find powerful films to share with my students. Get the most out of that monthly subscription fee and find ways to reach students at the same time. Here are 7 (in no particular order) powerful documentaries on Netflix that will move your students.

(Unfortunately these documentaries come and go from the Netflix catalog. In case you are worried about them disappearing or you do not have a Netflix subscription, I have included links to Amazon that you can use. Relying on a Netflix documentary that disappears can cause panic. Trust me, I know!)

God Grew Tired of Us

Refugees enter the United States from all over the world every year facing an uncertain future in America. Follow the lives of four men from Sudan as they spend their first year in the United States. God Grew Tired of Us is a feature length documentary narrated by Nicole Kidman that shows the struggles refugees face when settling in America. The men in the documentary are considered “Lost Boys” having fled their homes years ago due to violence in Sudan and settling in a refugee camp in Kenya before being sent to the United States.

Amazon: God Grew Tired of Us

He Named Me Malala

If you want students to truly understand and care about the experiences of others around the world, you need to make them feel something. Documentaries and even fictional movies can move students in a profound way. He Named Me Malala follows teenage activist Malala Yousafzai as she travels the world on a mission to make sure all girls have equal opportunities. (Available on DVD from Netflix or streaming online from Hulu).

Amazon Link: He Named Me Malala

Living on One Dollar

Living on One Dollar is a documentary that features four American men who live in rural Guatemala for two months living on one dollar a day. The men struggle through illness, hunger, and other challenges that come from living on one dollar a day. To make the situation more realistic, they pick an amount out of a hat every day ranging from one to nine dollars since people who live in poverty often have an unpredictable income. Throughout it all they meet amazing people in Guatemala who help them understand the challenges they face when trying to accomplish their goals while living in poverty.

Amazon: Living on One Dollar

Salam Neighbor

What if we lived in a world where we thought of everyone as our neighbors? A world where those things we call borders didn’t stop us from thinking people are worthy of aid, love, and understanding just because they live outside the boundaries of our nation.

In Salam Neighbor (Salam or Salaam means peace in Arabic) (from the same creators of Living on One Dollar) film makers spend time inside the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. The UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) allows the filmmakers to set up a tent inside the refugee camp just like the roughly 80,000 Syrian refugees that live there.

Amazon:Salam Neighbor

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Do you ever wish that you can show your students beautiful films that are both educational and emotionally meaningful? Jiro Dreams of Sushi fits the bill.

On the surface it might not seem that Jiro Dreams of Sushi has anything to offer an academic classroom, but the film is full of points that could help your class discuss culture in Japan and what it means to be successful. Students can learn about grit and hard work all while being serenaded by beautiful music and images of sushi that make even the most squeamish about raw fish hungry.

Amazon: Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Chef’s Table

From the creators of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Chef’s Table offers a glimpse inside the minds of the world’s greatest chefs. Each episode focuses on a chef in a different part of the world. Not only will students learn about that particular chef, but they will see footage of the local food culture in each locale. (Teaching Tip: Show clips from select episodes if want to focus on specific cultures).

Inside North Korea

Inside North Korea is an excellent way to understand how isolated life is inside North Korea. Award winning journalist, Lisa Ling, gives us a look inside the country that most people never get. Traveling alongside a doctor who is in North Korea to perform cataract surgeries, Lisa Ling poses as his assistant in order to film life in the country. She is able to speak with North Korean families in Pyongyang and see parts of life that normally no one is able to see.  (Available on DVD from Netflix, but full versions are streaming on Youtube).

If you search Netflix for North Korea, you will find several films that are available to stream including a favorite of my students called Propaganda Game.

Amazon: Inside North Korea

Honorable Mention

I didn’t include 30 Days in the list because it is not on Netflix, but it used to be!  So, here’s hoping it comes back, but until then you can order it on Amazon or find full versions from other sources like Vimeo.

30 Days

Morgan Spurlock, the creator of Supersize Me, created  a series called 30 Days to show different perspectives on controversial issues. 30 Days was once on Netflix, but has since been taken off. Even though it may be a little difficult to find, it will be well worth it. My favorite episodes from 30 Days are about Outsourcing, Immigration, and Islam.



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