Social Work

10 Incredible Documentaries Every Aspiring Social Worker Should Watch

10 Incredible Documentaries Every Aspiring Social Worker Should Watch
The message for social workers in any of these stories of suffering, and overcoming, might simply be this: don't give up. Image from Unsplash
Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert May 28, 2019

Domestic abuse and sexual violence, suicide, racism: the subjects of these documentaries are weighty, and so too are the lessons learned.

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Films can convey powerful messages about the need for societal change, raising awareness of under-reported issues, sparking debate and intervention. But they can do even more: they can reshape thinking. A documentary that profiles a social worker in action can inspire a novel approach to treatment and encourage new ways of thinking about problems.

A number of the documentaries on this list were directed or produced by social workers, and so represent a unique social-work-informed perspective. All speak to the work that social workers do, the individuals and communities they serve, and the ills they try to address. The message for social workers in any of these stories of suffering, and overcoming, might simply be this: don’t give up.

Alive Inside

Alive Inside is a poignant documentary on the power of music in treating Alzheimer and dementia patients. The film follows New York social worker Dan Cohen, who, convinced that music could help his patients stave off memory loss, begins treating his clients with recordings of the songs they loved in their youth. Throughout the film, we see Cohen’s successes with his patients as well as his battles with an inefficient healthcare system resistant to change. Social workers in any field will be inspired by Cohen’s relentless dedication to his patients, and those working with the elderly may benefit from seeing the resuscitative effects of successful therapy in action.


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Families Are Forever

The short film Families Are Forever was produced by the Family Acceptance Project (FAP), a research- and intervention-based initiative at San Francisco State University aimed at decreasing risk for LGBT youth living in culturally diverse and religious families. It’s one in a series of films whose goal is “helping to prevent suicide, HIV, homelessness and other serious health risks by increasing family support for LGBT youth.”

Families are Forever tells the story of 13-year-old Jordan Montgomery, who is both gay and a member of the Church of Latter-day Saints. During the period the film chronicles, Montgomery’s family is canvassing for the passage of California’s Proposition 8, a bill that would eliminate the right to same-sex marriage. When Jordan’s parents learn of their son’s sexual orientation, they must come to terms with the news, its impact on their family, and the potential effect of the law they support on the son they love. Those working with the LGBT population may find this movie and others in the series informative, instructive, and inspirational.

Finding Jenn’s Voice

Finding Jenn’s Voice is a film about intimate partner violence. The filmmaker, a social worker named Tracy Schott, became interested in the subject after hearing about the murder of Jennifer Snyder, a pregnant woman killed by her lover. When Schott learns that homicide is the leading cause of death during pregnancy, she sets out to uncover the causes and impact of abusive and homicidal relationships. Interweaving the voices of survivors of intimate partner violence with those of research experts in the field, Finding Jenn’s Voice debunks myths about abusive relationships and reveals some surprising truths. Child and family social workers, as well as social workers working in shelters or domestic abuse centers, will benefit from the stories and expert research shared in this film.

Here One Day

Here One Day is a riveting documentary about a woman coping with severe mental illness, her troubled relationships with her family, and a self-chronicled descent into her final act: suicide.

We learn of the suicide — the filmmaker’s mother’s — at the outset of the film. In its aftermath, filmmaker Kathy Leichter returns home, where she discovers a hidden box of audiotapes. For 16 years Leichter avoids the tapes, fearful of what they contain. Ultimately, she finds the strength to listen to her mother recount her troubled marriage to a state senator, her despair over an estranged son, and her losing battle with bipolar disorder.

For social workers and the public alike, Here One Day reduces the stigma surrounding mental illness and suicide. As Brian Mann, reporter and producer at National Public Radio, observes:”The film translates what it is harrowing and inexplicable — in this case Leichter’s mother Nina’s decision to end her life — into something beautiful and meaning-filled. I’ve seen people react to Here One Day and it goes beyond the normal relationship of audience-to-documentary. She’s offering a kind of guidepost toward thinking about mental illness and suicide in new, constructive ways.”

Inequality for All

Inequality For All features Robert Reich, former U. S. labor secretary and economist, author and professor, as he makes an impassioned argument that growing income equality is undermining the American dream. Inequality for All, based on Reich’s 2010 book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, explores the impact of a widening economic gap on our economy, democracy, and society. The film won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Social workers in social justice and policy, as well as those working at the organizational and macro level, will find Reich’s presentation fascinating, fact-filled, and illuminating in guiding social work policy.

Justice Denied

Justice Denied exposes male-on-male rape in the military. The film centers on the story of the filmmaker’s husband, who was raped by fellow servicemen while serving in the Air Force.

Justice Denied explores the sexual abuse of males in the military and the code of silence that allows perpetrators to avoid prosecution. Multiple survivors of rape are profiled in this documentary; Director Geri Lynn Weinstein-Matthews and her husband hope the film will encourage others to come forward.

Military social workers may find this subject shocking yet informative. They should walk away from this film with the recognition that the male vets they work with could be keeping sexual assault secret.

One Cut, One Life

In a case of life imitating art, One Cut, One Life follows Ed Pincus, a seminal documentarian diagnosed with a terminal illness. The documentary offers a brutally honest look at what it is like to live with a virtual death sentence while facing a revolving door of doctor’s appointments and treatments. At the core of Pincus’ journey are his deep desire to live and the quandary of whether he should undergo a bone marrow transplant that can save him or cost him his life.

The realities of trying to make impossible choices about one’s treatment and coming to terms with death, which are well known to hospice social workers, are artfully portrayed in this story and should be a revelation to other social workers and aspiring social workers.

Out in the Night

Out in the Night is an award-winning PBS film co-presented by the National Black Programming Consortium. A documentary with important messages about social justice, racism, self-defense, and anti-gay bias, it features the real-life story of seven gay African-American women who are violently taunted and threatened by a stranger in a gay-friendly neighborhood of New York City. The women fight back, their attacker is stabbed, and the fight is caught on security cameras. Subsequently, the group is accused of gang assault and attempted murder. The press catches wind of the story and quickly demonizes the women, calling them headline-making names like “Killer Lesbians” and “Wolf Pack.” Three plead guilty to avoid a trial; the remaining four fight for their innocence.

Social workers will recognize the inequities and bias at play in how these women are treated by the criminal justice system. Those working with the LGBT community and people of color will find this film instructive and powerful.

The Waiting Room

The Waiting Room is a documentary film that brings popular, hospital-based TV shows—like Grey’s Anatomy—to life. Filmmakers chronicle patients’ and doctors’ stories in the emergency room of Highland Hospital, a public medical center in Oakland, California. The film captures the frenzied and chaotic efforts to treat patients in spite of limited resources, administrative red-tape, and, frequently, the patient’s lack of insurance. Ann Hornady, film critic from the Washington Post wrote in her review: “If I could choose one film to play in the White House screening room this year, it would be The Waiting Room.”

Social workers in healthcare may not be surprised by what the film reveals but should be encouraged by how well the film depicts a broken healthcare system and points the way toward change. The Waiting Room won numerous awards and was an Emmy nominee in the Documentary and News film category.

Walking in Oak Creek

The short film Walking in Oak Creek was produced in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice COPS (Community-Oriented Policing Services) Office. The film tells the true life story of white supremacist Wade Michael Page, who entered a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Michigan, and shot and killed six people. Rather than become embittered, the temple members used the tragedy as a platform to advocate for peace and greater tolerance. The Oak Creek Police Department, in response, worked to build a closer and more positive relationship with the Sikh community. Social workers engaged in community outreach will find this film inspiring. Social workers working with immigrant or refugee populations will benefit from the film’s lessons about racial discrimination, assimilation, violence, forgiveness, and healing.

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About the Author

Ms. Nedda Gilbert is a seasoned clinical social worker, author, and educational consultant with 25 years of experience helping college-bound and graduate students find their ideal schools. She is a prolific author, including The Princeton Review Guide to the Best Business Schools and Essays that Made a Difference. Ms. Gilbert has been a guest writer for Forbes and a sought-after keynote speaker on college admissions. Previously, she played a crucial role at the Princeton Review Test Preparation Company and was Chairman of the Board of Graduate Philadelphia. Ms. Gilbert holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University and is a certified interdisciplinary collaborative family law professional in New Jersey.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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