Toolkit for "Reel Life"

Teaching with international films brings the world to your students. This toolkit for “Reel Life” provides information about suggested films that will “edu-tain” your students.


The following international films are appropriate for middle or high school audiences. Select a film that meets your specific learning goals and student population. Download a standards-aligned learning guide from Journeys in Film, and get ready to engage your students in “reel life.” 


Essential Questions

  1. What international films are available and appropriate for me to use with my subject area?
  2. What are some international films that address social justice topics and anti-bias goals?



Children of Heaven (1997, Iran)—PG

Synopsis: Children of Heaven is a contemporary Iranian film about families, compassion, moral responsibilities and issues of limited resources. This film, shot in and around Tehran, follows the lives of two siblings who are forced to share one pair of shoes after an unfortunate accident. Not wanting to burden their struggling parents, the children must work together and find a solution to deal with this significant loss. The film shows the inner strength we have when faced with adversity.

Subject Areas:  social studies, geography, world history, language arts
Topics/Themes: Islam, Iran, family, rites of passage, education

Like Stars on Earth (2007, India)—PG

Synopsis: Eight-year-old Ishaan’s world is filled with wonders that no one else seems to appreciate. Adults are more interested in things like homework and marks, but Ishaan just can’t seem to get anything right in class. When he gets into more trouble than his parents can handle, he is packed off to boarding school to “be disciplined.” New art teacher, Nikumbh, soon realizes that something is wrong and sets out to discover why. With time, patience and care, he ultimately helps Ishaan find himself.

Subject Areas: literacy, language arts
Topics/Themes: family, education, growing up, dyslexia, neurodiversity

Beat the Drum (2003, South Africa/USA)—NR

Synopsis: Beat the Drum is a contemporary South African film about the devastation of HIV/AIDS. It follows a young boy, Musa, who is orphaned after his parents die of the disease. In order to help his grandmother, he leaves his village in KwaZulu, Natal to find his uncle. As he makes the physical journey from his remote village to the urban landscape of Johannesburg, the film follows his emotional quest for survival, understanding and community.

Subject Area: world history, health
Topics/Themes: apartheid, AIDS, pandemic, ritual, Zulu tradition

Whale Rider (2002, New Zealand) —PG-13

Synopsis: Whale Rider reveals the struggle between Koro, the old chief of a Maori community, and Pai, his young and determined granddaughter. The stern and very traditional grandfather tirelessly searches for his successor among the young boys of his village. Although none of the boys live up to his expectations, Koro refuses to accept that a girl, his own granddaughter, may in fact be the most capable new leader. Displaying unconditional love, courage and wisdom far beyond her years, strong willed Pai must gain his approval in order to fulfill her destiny.

Subject Area: social studies, science
Topics/Themes: family, empowerments, growing up, cultural conflict

The Cup (1999, Tibet)

Synopsis:  The Cup is the story of a group of young Tibetan boys living as monks in a remote monastery at the foot of the Himalayas in Northern India. One of these boys, the tenacious and rebellious fourteen-year-old Orgyen is obsessed with the World Cup football (soccer) series and goes to great lengths to follow the games. He even resorts to sneaking out of the monastery at night and attempts to raise money to rent satellite television equipment to watch the World Cup in the monastery itself. The monastery’s disciplinarian must decide how to deal with the introduction of modern Western influences into their traditional monastic lifestyle.

Subject Area: social studies, world religion
Topics/Themes: globalization, Buddhism, growing up

Source for synopses: Journeys in Film, reprinted with permission