Documentaries: Oscar Nominees

One of the best ways to introduce documentaries into the classroom is simply by having students examine those that have been nominated for Oscars.

Between two categories, documentary feature and documentary short, there are ten different films from which to choose.  This week we’ve focused on how to implement smaller elements of documentary films in order to still allow for critical engagement without usurping too much classroom time.

Today’s post will focus on how to use the trailers of those Oscar nominated documentary features and shorts.  While we will only highlight a few, you might choose to peruse the list and choose several other trailers based on your needs in class.  There are two ways to think about implementing this type of assignment.  You might partner trailers with texts that you are teaching or you might simply do a smaller study of documentary films as non-fiction texts.  Either way have students consider documentary trailers as condensed, “mini” versions of the film itself.  You might ask that they SOAPSTone the trailers, answer questions and even create their own.

You might also consider using any of the Oscar nominated documentary features or documentary shorts.  Documentary Feature Hell and Back Again as well as Documentary Short Incident in New Baghdad would work in conjunction with teaching The Things They Carried, Catch-22 or All Quiet on the Western Front.   Documentary Short, The Barber of Birmingham would be a wonderful way to compliment a unit on speeches of the Civil Rights Movement or To Kill A Mockingbird. Below are three Oscar nominated films, their trailers and some ways for incorporating them into the classroom.

Saving Face

An HBO Documentary and winner of a 2012 Oscar for Documentary Short, Saving Face will air today at 8:30 p.m.  HBO offers a short synopsis of the film.  Consider using it as an introduction to having students view the trailer.   Also consider having students examine the resources for the film HBO lists.  Many of them are ways to get involved and build knowledge about the documentary’s topic of violence towards women in Pakistan.  Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

HBO Documentary Films: Saving Face Trailer by HBO

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Describe the overall argument of the trailer.  Offer an argument from the point of view of the women, the doctor and the filmmaker.
  3. Examine the text used in the trailer.  How does it add to the message?  Consider thinking about subtitles too.
  4. What is most noticeable about the trailer?  What elements draw in an audience?

The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom

An Oscar nominee for best documentary short, this film outlines the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.  The trailer, included below, has much to offer.  In fact, it’s one of the best from the Oscar Nominees to use this year.  It is both beautiful and heart wrenching.  You might consider having students read director Lucy Walker’s interview from Cinema Without Borders. Consider the questions below as a way to have students engage in viewing the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. What effect does cutting between real footage of the disaster and first person interview have on the audience?  Explain.
  3. Identify elements of both beauty and terror.  Why would a filmmaker have those two in such close proximity to one another?
  4. How does the filmmaker use emotion and humanity to reach an audience?
  5. Pick two images from the trailer that stand out.  Explain their significance.


This film, Oscar winner for best documentary feature, offers students a story about overcoming in spite of circumstance.  This would be a good partner to teaching Hope in the Unseen.  Consider having students read the Los Angeles Times interview with former NFL player Ed Cunningham, one of the producers, as a precursor to watching the trailer.

  1. SOAPSTONE the trailer.  This may require students to watch more than once.
  2. Explain why the trailer begins with the coach listing the “troubles” of his team.  What effect does this have on the audience?
  3. Identify the primary themes present in the documentary’s trailer.
  4. In the final scene of the trailer, the coach argues that, “You think football builds character.  It does not.  It reveals character.”  Explain what the implicit argument is in such a statement as it relates to the trailer for this documentary.
  5. Explain what is important about the footage, music and text.  How do they work together to create an overall feel for the film?  Explain.

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