Social Work

8 Must-Watch Documentaries for Social Workers

8 Must-Watch Documentaries for Social Workers
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Nedda Gilbert profile
Nedda Gilbert July 31, 2019

Emmy-nominated *The Hand That Feeds* is just one of the documentaries that all future social workers—whether you're considering a BSW or an MSW—need to watch (now).

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If you’re considering becoming a social worker, you doubtless feel a passion and a need to help others. But do you know how you want to help? Do you know the practice area in which you want to specialize?

Social workers provide life-changing support to such populations as the homeless, the aged, the terminally ill, the mentally ill, the LGBT community, and those battling substance abuse. They can be crusaders too, sitting on the frontlines of social justice battles, raising awareness about important societal concerns, and initiating reforms.

Do you want to learn more about how social workers—how you—can channel your passion in order to make a difference? Here are eight documentaries that may inform your decision to enter the profession, channel your focus to a specific area, and fire up your inner social worker.

Autism in Love

Autism in Love follows the lives of four adults with autism as they pursue romantic connections. Like many films that focus on a specific population or problem, Autism in Love challenges our perceptions about what disabled or challenged individuals can achieve.

The film reinforces the need for social workers to remain open to all possibilities in working towards the happiness and well-being of their clients. Social workers have a duty to see past diagnoses in order to challenge their clients, patients, and themselves. For social workers stuck in a clinical mindset, seeing their patients in a different light, as they might well in this film, can alter the dynamic between therapist and client.



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The Beginning of Life: The Series

The Beginning of Life is a riveting offering that takes on the development of self, the intersection of childhood and environment, and parenting. According to Netflix, “Using breakthroughs in technology and neuroscience, this series examines how environment affects infants – and how infants can affect our future.” The series provides a beyond-the-classroom study in child development, nature vs. nurture theory, and the circumstances under which children are raised.

This must-see comprehensive series is appropriate for any social worker in understanding early human behavior and development. It is particularly informative for mental health social workers and those specializing in the practice area of children, youth and family.

The Hand That Feeds

The Hand That Feeds was nominated for a 2017 News and Documentary Emmy in the Outstanding Business and Economic Documentary category. The film also received major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Hand That Feeds shares the real-life events that turned Mahoma Lopez, a quiet and unassuming employee working as an undocumented restaurant worker, into a local hero. Toiling away in a popular New York City chain bakery, Lopez decides one day to battle against the unfair and dangerous working conditions he and his co-workers endure. In June 2012, Mahoma Lopez becomes an unlikely crusader, risking deportation to fight for reasonable wages and work conditions. The film chronicles his battle for fair labor practices and his ultimate triumph in securing fair wages.

The Hand that Feeds offers an honest depiction of the conditions undocumented immigrant workers face in trying to earn a living. The film reveals how undocumented immigrants often live undercover, in fear of deportation. Because of the risk of discovery, undocumented individuals are less likely to speak up about unfair working conditions and other labor abuses. They are also less likely to report crimes. The Hand that Feeds highlights for social workers that exploitation and abuse for undocumented individuals is a common experience, and that protections are required. In a surprising and instructive twist, the film reveals that the state of New York provides wage protection for undocumented workers.

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground is a thought-provoking documentary that uncovers the prevalence of rape on U.S. college campuses and exposes a pattern of cover-ups. The film alleges that colleges and universities fail to pursue criminal investigations to minimize their legal exposure and reduce rape statistics.

The Hunting Ground features the real-life stories of students who assert they were the victims of sexual assault on-campus, told through interviews with the victims themsleves and their parents. In shocking sequences, college administrators confess they have suppressed the reporting of rape cases; schools exposed in this film include Harvard, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Amherst College and Notre Dame. The film also features an interview with a former Notre Dame police officer who openly shares his disappointment with how sexual assault is reported and handled on campus. The film argues that rape culture on America’s college campuses is alive and continues to be a troubling problem.

Many social workers work in violence intervention programs, in women’s shelters and in other settings where they help victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The critical work they do in empowering women through advocacy and support resonates in this film.

The Hunting Ground is a shocking reminder of how difficult it is for women on college campuses to report a sex crime and be heard. Whether they work in a women’s shelter, or as counselors, or as advocates for women, social workers play a pivotal role in helping women find the courage to report sexual assault despite the fear of retaliation, blame, or cover-up.

Kingdom of Us

Kingdom of Us tells the true story of Paul Shanks, a father of seven children—several of them on the autism spectrum—who ultimately commits suicide. We see Shanks as a young father who plays the goofy prankster while hiding his battle with depression and mental illness. Much of the film is told in the present as the filmmakers chronicle the now-teenage children’s dysfunctional attempts to return to normal family life and move on from their loss. It’s clear that the devastation cuts deep and that the trauma of their father’s suicide will haunt them for years, potentially compromising their own mental health and future.

The Kingdom of Us is an important film for social workers because it explores mental illness, depression, and suicide, and how challenging it is to move past trauma. From a clinician’s perspective, social workers will find this film highlights the difficulties in predicting and preventing suicide. It offers an honest portrayal of how families are impacted—irreparably—by a family member’s decision to take his or her life.

Reeling from their loss, the Shanks children struggle to find closure but are overwhelmed by guilt and grief. Normalcy never seems within their grasp. This film underscores the need for social workers to try to help children process their feelings about loss and grief in order to heal emotionally.

The Mask You Live In

The Mask You Live In is a critically acclaimed documentary that takes on an unaddressed and thought-provoking issue: how boys and young men navigate society’s ideation and definition of American masculinity. It is one of those movies that can change how we think about an issue.

This film examines the influence of peer pressure and societal norms in shaping ideas about gender identity and perpetuating gender stereotypes. For boys, this means suppressing their emotions and feelings, acting like “real men,” and objectifying and degrading women. In the effort to internalize this societal expectation of maleness, young boys and men learn to hide their true self and take on a false persona.

For social workers, this film contextualizes how deeply these factors weigh in the struggle to fit an idealized lens of masculinity. Terming the assimilation into what a “real man” is in America, the film terms this problem a “boy crisis,” and experts from the field of neurobiology, psychology, sociology, sports, and education provide unique insights. Any social worker working with young boys, adolescents, the LGBT community and gender identity will find this an instructive and inspiring watch. It offers an opportunity to reshape how we raise boys and men, and to give them the freedom to be authentically who they are, connected to their feelings.

The Out List

The Out List provides insights into the intimate experiences of those in the LGBT community as shared through interviews with prominent LGBT individuals from the world of sports, business, politics, and Hollywood. The film’s subjects tell personal stories about their own sexuality and the challenges of building a career and fitting in. The interviewees share painful experiences of bias and discrimination and empowering moments of finding love, acceptance, and success. Celebrities interviewed include Ellen DeGeneres, Cynthia Nixon, Wanda Sykes, and Neil Patrick Harris.

This film provides a fascinating look at the discrimination and challenges that still impact those in the LGBT community despite the US Supreme Court’s 2015 decision requiring all states to grant and recognize same-sex marriages. Gay rights may have made epic progress, but that does not mean the smaller transactions that define daily life are not plagued by bigotry, bias, and even violence. The Out List is also a critical watch for any social worker working with clients on gender identity issues.

The Overnighters

The Overnighters, which won the Special Jury Award in the documentary category at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, tells the real-life story of a 21st-century oil boom. Learning of underground oil deposits and high-paying work in hydraulic fracking, thousands of hopeful workers arrive in small town Williston, North Dakota looking for jobs. When they get there, few jobs are to be found and housing is practically nonexistent.

A charismatic pastor, Jay Reinke, opens the doors of his church and provides the newcomers temporary shelter. These newcomers—or overnighters, hence the film’s title—sleep anywhere they can: on the floor, in the pews, in their cars. The result is an ad hoc migrant community that soon upsets locals. Adding to the drama is a grisly murder with ties to this new group. Making matters worse, a number of transient workers living in the church are revealed to be registered sex offenders. A series of events exacerbate tensions within the ad hoc church community itself at the same time that long-time Williston residents grapple with the intrusion of these overnighters into their neighborhoods and lives.

At its core, The Overnighters is about the importance of finding work in America and the desperation people feel in searching for a way to make a living. Social workers will recognize the challenges of those with a criminal or checkered past eager to secure any kind of employment.

This film also tells a classic story of newcomers who upset the status quo of an existing community and the fear-mongering and resentment that results. In this way, The Overnighters comments on the plight of any newcomer—immigrants, migrant workers, refugees—struggling to assimilate into a new community. Community social workers working with these groups will recognize the resistance, bias, and obstacles newcomers face.

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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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Categorized as: Social WorkSocial Work & Counseling & Psychology