Of the more than 250 DVDs reviewed last year, the following are memorable works that will enhance curricula with their strong educational and entertainment appeal. Diverse in every sense of the word—both in format and in subjects addressed—these are can’t-miss DVDs that have a place in every collection, but, most importantly, they’re all exceptional productions. Given that cost is a constant consideration in collection building, two epic-length selections below are a librarian’s bargain: top quality at a reasonable price.
There were plenty of rich programs about the environment to choose from, many of which would satisfy Common Core State Standards. An issue raised in one program would be thoroughly examined in another, such as overfishing in Antarctica, deforestation throughout the world, or rising sea levels.
Each episode of the nine-part, globe-trotting examination of climate change, Years of Living Dangerously (FilmRise; Gr 9 Up), stands alone. Yet, taken together, the series offers an up-to-date compendium of interconnected environmental crises. It’s a credit to the series that the star power (correspondents Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, and America Ferrera, among others) never upstages the issues, such as the correlation between two devastating droughts, one deep in the heart of Texas, the other in prerevolution Syria. Science is made thought-provoking.
This year, PBS’s Nature series offered a treasure trove of animal-related documentaries with stunning, state-of-the-art cinematography. Filmed up-close, these creatures seem practically tangible. It’s a tough call to choose which episode stood out, but the following picks are high on the “ah” factor and packed with solid information.
The Funkiest Monkeys (PBS; Gr 6 Up) is an advocacy piece at its most charming and effective. Filmmaker Colin Stafford-Johnson ventures to Indonesia to bond with and film endangered black crested macaques, whose numbers are diminishing because of the local bushmeat market. In the process, he details their social structure and behavior (including a particularly amorous interaction). By the end, Stafford-Johnson becomes part of the troop, with one monkey even gingerly grooming his hair as he’s filming.
The antics of the wily and ferocious Honey Badgers (PBS; Gr 5 Up) will captivate viewers. Very little intimidates this carnivorous species, who even devour poisonous snakes. (Did you know that they are actually weasels?) The film sets up shop in South Africa, with a conservationist and a naturalist studying them in the wild. As a certain R-rated YouTube video sensation would agree, honey badgers really don’t care what others think—they do as they please.
Rich in detail and a strong supplement for American history classes (and great for reports), The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (PBS; Gr 9 Up) offers a sweeping view of five centuries. Written and presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr., the six-hour series begins with Esteban the Moor, reportedly the first African in the New World, and continues all the way to the present day. It gives audiences an idea of the big picture (slavery dominates the frank discussion in the first two episodes) while bringing into focus specific figures, such as Elizabeth Freeman, Richard Allen, and Margaret Garner. The series can be tied to studies on many historical periods, such as Reconstruction, the black literary flowering in the early 20th century, and the civil rights movement.
Where The African Americans takes a broad view of history, Freedom Summer (PBS; Gr 7 Up) zeroes in on a few months in 1964, when college students, mostly from the North, trekked to one state in particular to register black voters, among other endeavors. (“You crack Mississippi, you crack the whole South.”) The wide breadth of interviews brings immediacy to this period of the civil rights struggle. Succinct and well rounded, this documentary is a must-have for public libraries.
Among the picture book–to–DVD adaptations, Brian Floca’s Locomotive (Dreamscape Media; Gr 2-4) speeds ahead of the rest. It faithfully remains as chock-full of material as the print edition (S. & S., 2013) regarding the building of the transcontinental railroad and how it transformed the country. Importantly, the disc includes two featurettes, including one that focuses on the science of steam power. A stellar example for language arts-building programs.
The thoughtful and probing Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement (New Day Films; Gr 9 Up) challenges viewers’ ideas of what it means to be physically fit, as well as what it means to be human, by tackling head-on the assumptions of ableism. The documentary deals with the history of disability rights up to the 21st century, with bionic arms and other enhancements becoming more common. An excellent means to provoke discussion in biology and ethics classes.
Though Havana Curveball (PatchWorks Films; Gr 5 Up) has a seemingly straightforward premise, it’s an inspiring documentary that leaves an impact. As part of a community project, teen Mica Jarmel-Schneider sends care packages stuffed with baseball equipment to Cuba, a country that holds significance for his family (a former child refugee, Mica’s grandfather fled Nazi Germany for the island nation). Uncertain whether the donations have even arrived, Mica and his father travel to Havana to deliver more goods. There, he—and the audience—learn a valuable lesson about giving, as the reactions of the adolescent’s Cuban peers are not what he expects. A quietly moving film, it’s equally at home in public library and religious school collections as well as social studies classes.
The hard-hitting documentary Valentine Road (Bullfrog Films; Gr 7 Up) captures the tenor of our times, centering on the 2008 shooting death of eighth grader Larry King in his Oxnard, CA, middle school by classmate Brandon McInerney. Two days earlier, King had publicly said he had a crush on McInerney. The film builds to an exploration of gender, homophobia, race, bullying, gun control, and the juvenile justice system, becoming engrossing and jaw dropping.
In a completely different vein, the effortlessly informative and beautifully made feature film Wadjda (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment; Gr 6 Up) is a sensitive and observant coming-of-age story. It’s also a bit rebellious, as its eponymous protagonist, a strong-willed 10-year-old Saudi Arabian tomboy, tests her culture’s restrictive social codes. All she wants is to purchase a bicycle and freely ride the streets. Her teachers and family, though, urge her to be pious and obedient. Adolescents will easily identify with the nonconformist Wadjda and will embrace the complex and loving mother-daughter relationship that director Haifaa al-Mansour has lovingly crafted. n