Film Spark

Documentary films are powerful, multi-sensory experiences that help students build social and emotional awareness and connect to current events, cultures, crucial social and political issues, and beliefs beyond their own. Addressing important themes such as identity, resilience, dedication, equality, and courage, the Film Spark documentary collection helps build empathy and showcases new voices and topics relevant to young people today. These curated global stories are selected to initiate meaningful classroom discussions and activities, and ultimately lead young people to develop their own voices and become more successful students and productive citizens.

Providing engaging video content and supporting the development of communication, critical thinking, media literacy, social action, and media creation, the Film Spark series is also paired with Educator Study Guides for grades 6-12.

Film Spark is made possible by the generous support of community sponsors.

Get Film Spark

For more information please email Utah Film Center’s Rick Wray


Volume One’s focus is on contemporary social issue documentaries, while Volume Two features STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) themed non-fiction films. The documentaries and corresponding curriculum materials are constructed to help support deeper STEM content learning, enhance STEM literacy, and excite students about potential STEM careers.

Films: Volume One

    The story of Lizzie Velasquez, a young woman who used her experience with being cyberbullied to start a worldwide anti-bullying crusade.


    A New York city middle school whose chess club is the heart of the school must fight to keep it funded.


    A candid look at the effects of bullying on teens in America’s heartland.


    Snowboarder Kevin Pearce sustains a serious brain injury, and as part of his recovery he must decide if he’s willing to risk his life by snowboarding again.


    A portrait of Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani woman who was shot by the Taliban for fighting to receive an education.


    Five teen immigrants and refugees work to retain their identities while adjusting to life in America.


    High school kids from different backgrounds come together to perform at a Chicago poetry slam.


    An examination of the often damaging culture of masculinity in America, and its repercussions on the emotional health of boys and men.


    The journey of young Ugandan baseball players trying to make it to the Little League World Series.


    An analysis of the growing problem of food insecurity in America.


    All the films in this short documentary compilation were made by emerging teenage filmmakers at Spy Hop Productions.


    Follow four young men as they attempt to prove the value of mustang horses by riding them from Mexico to Canada.


Directed by Sara Hirsh Bordo
78 min | 2015 | USA | PG-13

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story is a documentary following the inspiring journey of 26-year-old, 58 pound Lizzie from cyber-bullying victim to anti-bullying activist. Born with a rare syndrome that prevents her from gaining weight, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Velasquez was first bullied as a child in school for looking different and, later online, as a teenager when she discovered a YouTube video labeling her “The World’s Ugliest Woman.” The film chronicles unheard stories and details of Lizzie’s physical and emotional journey up to her TEDx talk, which has been viewed millions of times, and follows her pursuit from a motivational speaker to Capitol Hill as she lobbies for the first federal anti-bullying bill.


Directed by Katie Dellamaggiore
101 min | 2012 | USA | Rated PG

Brooklyn Castle tells the stories of five members of the chess team at a below-the-poverty-line inner city junior high school that has won more national championships than any other in the country. The film follows the challenges these kids face in their personal lives as well as on the chessboard, and is as much about the sting of their losses as it is about the anticipation of their victories.


Directed by Lee Hirsch
98 min | 2011 | USA | PG-13

Bully is a beautifully cinematic, character–driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue and whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, Bully opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic, and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, communities, and society as a whole.


Directed by Lucy Walker
108 min | 2013 | USA | Not Rated

This film seamlessly combines twenty years of stunning action footage with new specially–shot verité footage and interviews as it follows U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce and exposes the irresistible, but potentially fatal appeal of extreme sports. An escalating rivalry between Kevin and his nemesis Shaun White, in the run–up to the 2010 Olympics, leaves Shaun on top of the Olympic podium and Kevin in a coma following a training accident in Park City, Utah. Kevin’s tight–knit Vermont family flies to his side and helps him rebuild his life as a brain injury survivor. But when he insists he wants to return to the sport he still loves, his family intervenes with his eloquent brother David speaking for all of them when he says, “I just don’t want you to die.” Kevin’s doctors caution him that even a small blow to the head could be enough to kill him. Will Kevin defy them and insist on pursuing his passion?


Directed by Davis Guggenheim
88 min | 2015 | USA | Rated PG-13

He Named Me Malala is an intimate portrait of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban and severely wounded by a gunshot when returning home on her school bus in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. The then 15-year-old was singled out, along with her father, for advocating for girls’ education, and the attack on her sparked an outcry from supporters around the world. She miraculously survived and is now a leading campaigner for girls’ education globally as co-founder of the Malala Fund.


Directed by Jean Michel Dissard & Gitte Peng
92 min | 2013 | USA | Not Rated

In I Learn America, five resilient immigrant teenagers come together over a year at the International High School at Lafayette and struggle to learn their new land. The International High School is a New York City public school dedicated to serving newly arrived immigrant teenagers, with more than 300 students speaking two-dozen languages from 50 countries. The students strive to master English, adapt to families they haven’t seen in years, confront the universal trials of adolescence, and search for a future they can claim as their own.


Directed by Greg Jacobs & Jon Siskel
99 min | 2010 | USA | Not Rated

Louder Than a Bomb is a film about passion, competition, teamwork, and trust. It’s about the joy of being young, and the pain of growing up. It’s about speaking out, making noise, and finding your voice. It also just happens to be about poetry.

Every year, more than 600 teenagers from over sixty Chicago area schools gather for the world’s largest youth poetry slam, a competition known as “Louder Than a Bomb.” Founded in 2001, Louder Than a Bomb is the only event of its kind in the country—a youth poetry slam built from the beginning around teams. Rather than emphasize individual poets and performances, the structure of Louder Than a Bomb demands that kids work collaboratively with their peers, presenting, critiquing, and rewriting their pieces. To succeed, teams have to create an environment of mutual trust and support. For many kids, being a part of such an environment—in an academic context — is life-changing.


Directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom
97 min | 2015 | USA | Not Rated

The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Pressured by the media, their peer groups, and even the adults in their lives, our protagonists confront messages encouraging them to disconnect from their emotions, devalue authentic friendships, objectify and degrade women, and resolve conflicts through violence. These gender stereotypes interconnect with race, class, and circumstance, creating a maze of identity issues boys and young men must navigate to become “real” men.


Directed by Jay Shapiro
74 min | 2012 | USA | Not Rated

A love letter to the game of baseball from the place you would least expect. The is the true story of the first African team to play in the Little League World Series. After three years of agonizing ups and downs, a team of 11-12 year olds win their way into the most prestigious sports tournament in the world. Filmmaker Jay Shapiro followed this baseball community from the slums and countryside of Uganda for over three years. As they embrace America’s pastime (and the game’s fans embrace them), the team of orphans and lost boys becomes a family, and something for the people of that poverty-stricken place to cheer for.


Directed by Kristi Jacobson & Lori Silverbush
84 min | 2012 | USA | PG

Fifty million people in the USA, and one in four children, don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine the issue of hunger in America through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single mother in Philadelphia, grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a fifth-grader in Colorado often depends on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a second-grader in Mississippi has asthma and health issues that are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.



Directed by Various
70 min | Various | USA | Not Rated

Located in Downtown Salt Lake City, Spy Hop’s mission is to mentor young people in the digital media arts to help them find their voice, tell their stories, and be empowered to affect positive change in their lives, their communities and the world. Since 1999, Spy Hop has mentored Utah’s young people in the digital media arts as a vehicle for free expression, self-discovery, critical thinking and skilled participation. Their after-school and community programs in audio and radio production, film, game and graphic design and music production have become a model for youth development programs across the country. In 2015, Spy Hop won the nation’s highest honor in youth arts programming when it was awarded the National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award by the White House. For more information about Spy Hop and their programs go to


Directed by Phillip Baribeau
106 min | 2015 | USA | Rated PG-13

Four young cowboys hatch an outrageous plot to adopt, train, and ride a string of wild mustangs for 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada through the wildest terrain of the American West. The trip became an epic journey of self-discovery, tested friendships, and iconic landscapes that included runaway horses, a sassy donkey, perilous mountain passes, rodeos, sickness, injury, and death. Unbranded is a soaring tale of danger and resilience, an emotionally charged odyssey that shines a bright light on the complex plight of our country’s wild horses.

Films: Volume Two

    Social worker Dan Cohen works to share his important discovery - that listening to music can unlock the memories of people suffering from dementia.


    This film follows environmental anthropologist Susie Crate and her teenage daughter Katie as they visit indigenous communities threatened by climate change.


    The story of one man’s mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of our changing planet.

  • CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

    An examination of gender disparity in the computer science industry.

  • FED UP

    Making the case that the obesity epidemic in America’s children isn’t due to lack of exercise, but to excessive sugar intake.

  • FOCUS FORWARD – Short Films, Big Ideas

    A collection of short films about STEM innovators.


    Teenager Laura Dekker attempts to sail around the world on her own.


    Filmmakers go around the world - sometimes undercover - to document animal extinction.


    An Iranian teenager fights her culture’s restrictions to pursue her interest in astronomy.


    Traces the story of Dean Kamen’s water purification machine from its earliest development through recent trials in five schools in rural Ghana and beyond.


    Oceans are a sonic symphony. Sound is essential to the survival and prosperity of marine life. But man-made ocean noise is threatening this fragile world.


    Mexican teen boys in Arizona fight stereotypes and immigration laws to make their mark in the world of science.


Directed by Michael Rossato-Bennet
78 min | 2013 | USA | Rated PG-13

Alive Inside is a cinematic exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity. Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett chronicles the astonishing experiences of individuals around the country who have been revitalized through the simple experience of listening to music.


Directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger
78 min | 2015 | USA | Not Rated

The Anthropologist examines climate change like no other film before. The fate of the planet is considered from the perspective of American teenager Katie Crate. Over the course of five years, she travels alongside her mother Susie, an anthropologist studying the impact of climate change on indigenous communities. Their journey parallels that of renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead, who for decades sought to understand how global change affects remote cultures.


Directed by Jeff Orlowski
75 min | 2012 | USA | Rated PG-13 for brief strong language

Chasing Ice is the story of one man’s mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of our changing planet. Within months of his first trip to Iceland, one photographer conceived the boldest expedition of his life: The Extreme Ice Survey. With a band of young adventurers in tow, Balog began deploying revolutionary time-lapse cameras across the brutal Arctic to capture a multi-year record of the world’s changing glaciers.

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap

Directed by Robin Hauser Reynolds
51 min (Educational Version) | 2015 | USA | Not Rated

CODE: Debugging the Gender Gap documentary exposes the dearth of American female and minority software engineers and explores the reasons for this gender gap. CODE raises the question: What would society gain from having more women and minorities code? The film focuses on inspiring young girls to pursue careers in computer science by profiling successful women in computer programming, such as, Danielle Feinberg of Pixar, Aliya Rahman of Code for Progress and Julie Ann Horvath of &Yet.


Directed by Stephanie Soechtig
92 min | 2014 | USA | Rated PG for thematic elements including smoking images, and brief mild language

Fed Up focuses on the causes of obesity in the US, presenting evidence showing that the large quantities of sugar in processed foods are an overlooked root of the problem. The film points to the monied lobbying power of “big sugar” and how they block attempts to enact policies that address the issue.

FOCUS FORWARD – Short Films, Big Ideas

Directed by Various Directors
38 min | various | USA | Not Rated

FOCUS FORWARD – Short Films, Big Ideas is an award-winning series of three-minute stories about innovators—people who are reshaping the world through act or invention—directed by the world’s most celebrated documentary filmmakers.


Directed by Jillian Schlesinger
82 min | 2013 | USA | Not Rated

15-year-old Laura Dekker sets out—camera in hand—on a two-year voyage in pursuit of her dream to be the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. In the wake of a year-long battle with Dutch authorities that sparked a global storm of media scrutiny, Laura now finds herself far from land, family and unwanted attention, exploring the world in search of freedom, adventure, and distant dreams of her early youth at sea.


Directed by Louie Psihoyos
90 min | 2015 | USA | Not Rated

Utilizing state-of-the-art equipment, Oscar-winner Louie Psihoyos assembles a team of artists and activists intent on showing the world never-before-seen images that expose issues of endangered species and mass extinction. The film moves from a brief summary of past extinctions to an intimate look at the many ways humans are fishing, hunting, and poaching species around the world into oblivion.


Directed by Berit Madsen
52 min (Educational Version) | 2013 | Iran | Not Rated

Iranian sixteen year-old Sepideh spends her nights exploring the secrets of the universe and dreams of going to a university to eventually become an astronaut. Her family wants her to take on a more traditional role, though she is determined to pursue her dream.


Directed by Paul Lazarus
54 min (Educational Version) | 2014 | USA | Not Rated

SlingShot focuses on noted Segway inventor Dean Kamen and his work to solve the world’s water crisis. An eccentric genius with a provocative worldview, Dean lives in a house with secret passages, a closet full of denim and a helicopter garage. His latest passion: the SlingShot water purification system created to obliterate half of human illness on the planet.


Directed by Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld
62 min | 2014 | USA | Not Rated

Sonic Sea is a documentary about the devastating impact of industrial and military ocean noise on whales and other marine life. The film begins with a mystery: the unexplained stranding and mass mortality of several species of whales in the Bahamas in March 2000. As the mystery unfolds, the film explores the critical role of sound in the sea, and the sudden, dramatic changes human activity is inflicting on the ocean’s delicate acoustic habitat.


Directed by Mary Mazzio
86 min | 2014 | USA | Not Rated

Underwater Dreams is an epic story of how the sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and their energetic high school science teachers, on a whim, decide to enter a sophisticated underwater robotics competition sponsored by NASA and the Office of Naval Researchers. They learned to build an underwater robot from Home Depot parts and defeated engineering powerhouse MIT in the process. This ragtag team of Mexican boys did what no one thought possible. The competition, however, was only the beginning.


What is a DocumentaryFilm & Media-Making ToolsDigital Media For Teacher DevelopmentAligned Curriculum Standards
A documentary film is a nonfiction movie intended to chronicle reality. Documentaries are made to instruct, or to create a lasting record of their subjects. They are often used to inform people about social issues, showcase historical events, or celebrate memorable lives.

Some styles of documentary film include expository (meant as an authoritative voice, explaining something to the viewer), observational (fly-on-the-wall), poetic (experimental, impressionistic), and reflexive (draws attention to the filmmaker and the filmmaking process).

As soon as motion pictures were invented, people used them to document their lives. The first publicly screened film and documentary was an 1895 movie titled Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory. It showed crowds of people flowing out of the factory at the end of the workday. This subject not only showcased the movement this new medium could capture, but provided a look into the lives of the workers at the Lumiere’s photo equipment factory. Twenty seven years later in 1922, the first feature-length documentary, Nanook of the North, was released.

Some successful contemporary documentary filmmakers include Davis Guggenheim (He Named Me Malala), Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man), Laura Poitras (Citizenfour), Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel), and Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 9/11 is the top-grossing documentary of all time.

The “Activities” section of the Film Spark Study Guides include Making Art and Making Media activities that may require either accessing online resources (most often a website), some further explanation, or, for the media-making activities in particular, acquiring a new skill set. Here we have provided some guidelines and links to supplemental resources to help you and your students successfully navigate these activities efficiently and effectively.

Making Art Activities 
We highly recommend that the Making Art activities be done in a sketchbook that we refer to in the Study Guides as a “portfolio.” The sketchbook should be approximately 9×12 inches and contain blank, unlined pages for sketching and drawing.

Making Media Activities 

Infographic Posters
Infographics are visuals that help you share information. The websites referenced below and in the Study Guides not only provide users with multiple examples and ideas, but also makes the process much easier, requiring little to no graphic design skills. Once you enter either of these free infographic sites, you can choose a poster template that you can then edit and customize according to your data needs and layout ideas. |  piktochart

Audio Mixes
An audio mix, or sound collage, is a mixture of voices, sound effects, and music (optional) that have been recorded on a device, such as an iphone, then put into audio editing software (we recommend downloading Audacity (free) for Macs or PCs) and edited to create a complete audio piece. The strength of the message derives from the multiple perspectives (many people speaking to any given topic). These stories can be podcasted on itunes for example, or posted to sound platforms such as, where anyone can share their audio pieces. The site below, also referenced in the Study Guides, is not only a sound platform where anyone can post, but also contains a “resource for educators” section that takes you through the steps of creating audio stories with your students.

soundcloud | Radio Rookies

Public Service Announcement (PSA) Campaigns
A PSA is like a short commercial and is sometimes presented as a video (typically 30-60 seconds), audio piece (heard on the radio), or found in print form in magazines, billboards, or newspapers. A PSA attempts to raise awareness about a problem or issue and persuades the audience to take action to solve a problem. The key to a good PSA is a clear and concise message intended for a specific audience, accurate facts, and figures, a catchy tagline such as “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” and a call to action that directs the audience to additional resources where they can help solve the problem. When creating video PSAs, it is important to have students carefully plan, including storyboarding their piece, before shooting and keeping track of research sources for the credits. Video editing software comes free on Macs and PC’s and can be used to edit films. For PSA tutorials check out YouTube,, or Vimeo Video School. Consult the Ad Council website for many print examples and to understand the history of PSAs. For a selection of student-produced PSA video examples go to the SHIFT Media Gallery and scroll down to the PSA section.

Photo Films
Also known as audio slideshows, this format is popular with journalists and combines audio narration (a story told and recorded) with photographs. Together, they can resemble a film as the still photos progress with the audio story. A few good examples done by Amy O’Leary for the New York Times can be found through the link below. Adding sound effects, and/or a soundtrack is optional and a bit more advanced, but is something to aspire to as they enhance the story and create ambiance. For guidance, consult the Vimeo School “storytelling with sound” link.

StoryTelling with Sound | Amy O’Leary Step-By-Step and Audio Slideshow Examples

Stop Motion Animation
Stop Motion is a technique that brings inanimate objects to life by taking a series of photographs and stringing them together to create the illusion of motion. The How-To-Do-Stop-Motion site has a series of “how to” videos that not only show you technique but provide specifics on how to animate certain objects. If you are looking for a step-by-step guide, the Adobe Education Exchange website under the youth media category has an eight-session stop motion animation curriculum called “stories in motion” that will direct you through the process.

Media Literacy Project: This site contains some of the best media literacy curricula and action guides to help teach and strengthen students’ understanding of media literacy and their role as media consumers and producers.

PBS Learning Media: A media-rich website that lets you search by subject matter, grade level, and media type to find standards-aligned digital resources and professional development experiences. Also explore for curriculum-aligned resources for students to further explore topics of interest.

HandHeld Hollywood: Known as HHH, this is great site to research affordable gear, the newest filmmaking-related iOS apps, and to find inspiration.

Vimeo Video School: An amazing resource that hosts a variety of software tutorials in Adobe Premiere, Final Cut Pro, and Windows Movie Maker, as well as shares other Do-It-Yourself (DIY), low-budget, high-quality production tips. They also host thematic “weekend challenges” that students can participate in.

KQED: This public media station out of San Francisco, California has a robust education section that includes professional development opportunities, digital tools that are usually free, easy to access and use, and media-making tool kits. Check out their twitter feed as well: @KQEDedspace for a plethora of ideas and inspiration.

ProjectED: A site for students and educators that hosts contests for students and creators, and contains videos and lesson plans for teachers.

Spy Hop Productions: A nationally-acclaimed youth mentorship digital media arts organization where young people can take classes, participate in digital media driven community events, and step into their creativity. Their Vimeo channel has a plethora of inspiring, high-quality youth-produced films.

Adobe Education Exchange: This site has endless digital media resources for teachers to execute digital storytelling with youth. Beginning through advanced digital media professional development classes are also offered, as well as an extensive youth media section that features a huge media gallery from around the world where youth have created meaningful works on a range of issues important to them and their communities.

The Study Guides that have been created to accompany each of the Film Spark films have been aligned to multiple curriculum standard areas, including: Utah Fine Arts Core Standards-Secondary Media Arts, Utah Core State Standards for English Language Arts-Secondary, Utah Standards for Library Media-Secondary, and the Film Foundation’s National Film Study Standards for Middle School.

The key relevant “Anchor” and “Strand” Standards from each discipline are listed below, but to see a comprehensive list of supporting Sub-standards and Objectives, please click on the appropriate title link below.


Anchor Standards (grades 7-8)

Respond–Students will perceive and analyze artistic work and process. They will interpret intent and meaning, and apply criteria to evaluate artistic work and process.

Connect–Students will synthesize and relate knowledge from personal and collaborative experience to make and receive art. They will relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.

Anchor Standards (grades 9-12)

There are three “Levels” and Anchor Standards of “Respond” and “Connect” are identical throughout each Level, but with differing Sub-standards by ability.

Level One

Respond–Students will understand, evaluate, and articulate how works of art convey meaning for the observer as well as the creator.

Connect–Student will relate artistic skills, ideas, and work with personal meaning and external context.


College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening

Comprehension and Collaboration

  1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  3. Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.


Strand II Literacy: Information and Research

Students need the lifelong skills of selecting information from a wide variety of sources, assessing its worth, and applying newfound knowledge to problems, preparing them for learning, doing, and problem solving in college, career and throughout life. Teacher librarians will instruct students in a multi-step research process that is adaptable. As students gain research skills, they develop self-confidence in solving information problems in an environment where information resources and technologies have become increasingly complex.

Standard 4–Students will engage with and extract information.

Strand III Literacy: Media Engagement

In order to make informed decisions, students must successfully discern and interpret the messages surrounding them in media. Teacher librarians, in collaboration with classroom teachers, can integrate these skills into curricular units throughout a wide range of core and elective subjects.

Standard 1–Students will demonstrate that media literacy is a life skill integral to modern citizenship and informed decision-making.


Standard 1.0–Film Language

Standard 2.0–Historical and Cultural Contexts

Standard 3.0–Production and Creative Expression

Standard 4.0–Viewers’ Response and Aesthetic Valuing

Standard 5.0–Cross-Curricular Connections