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Far-Flung Films: How to Start a Foreign-Movie Habit With Your Kids

Want to add education and cultural competency to your family movie night? Check out these 8 foreign films to watch with your kids

Published on: January 25, 2016

Every week, I sit down with my kids for family movie night. The tradition has been going for eight years or so and a long time ago, my husband and I realized we couldn’t stomach the kinds of, er, crappy kid programming that our daughters sometimes like to watch when they have control of the remote. Looking for variety, I realized that we could bust right past Disney and Pixar into, quite literally, a whole world of exciting film choices. Our daughters could still barely read when we tried movies with subtitles. They’ve now watched stories from more than 20 countries — animated films, dramas, documentaries, Bollywood musicals.

Foreign films have so many benefits: They can help us raise globally minded kids, promote a culture of tolerance and openness, and help children realize that trying new things can result in really interesting outcomes.

Some things to know as you explore global flicks: Many will be in a foreign language; some will have subtitles; and some popular films that were originally made in a foreign language have later been remade with English dubbing. Other cultures have different ideas of what’s appropriate for different ages; check resources such as Common Sense Media and IMDb to read up on films first. Most films have trailers that you can find on YouTube — a great way to get reluctant kids hooked. In our house, we have a rule that the parents pick the film for family movie night, so there’s not really any bickering or debating. Sometimes it’s fun to match dinner to the movie: Eat sushi with anime, for instance — you get the idea.

Here are some of my family’s favorite international films for a range of ages.

1. The Red Balloon

(1956, France) 5 and older

This classic and imaginative film about a red balloon that befriends a French boy is delightful and will keep you thinking long after the closing credits. The film is told entirely through visuals with no dialogue. (There is some mild bullying to be aware of.) Younger children will enjoy tracking the shiny balloon. With older children, you can initiate a discussion later about what lessons they think the film holds. The Red Balloon is a refreshing departure from the visual overload found in modern movies.

2. My Neighbor Totoro

(1988, Japan; English language) 5 and older

If you are just starting to explore the children’s movie canon and you aren’t already familiar with anime (Japanese animation), you might be asking: Why are people so crazy for Miyazaki movies? It’s because they are incredible, and each one is like entering a new and secret world with your children. Filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, a partner in an anime studio called Studio Ghibli, is known as the Walt Disney of Japan and enjoys more popularity outside of Japan than any other Japanese director. Miyazaki’s films are the best entry point for anime, and Totoro, is a great introduction. (Ghibli films target a range of maturity levels, from preschoolers to older tween viewers.) Totoro is about two girls (voice in the English version by Dakota and Elle Fanning) who have adventures with forest spirits who live near their mother’s hospital. Tip: If you’ve seen Totoro, try Kiki’s Delivery Service and The Secret World of Arrietty, which is based on The Borrowers books by Mary Norton.

3. Dancing in Jaffa

(2013, USA; English, Arabic, Hebrew language) 7 and older

This documentary by Hilla Medalia follows Pierre Dulaine, a teacher and former champion ballroom dancer whose nonprofit Dancing Classrooms is behind the events of the 2005 documentary Mad Hot Ballroom, to Israel, where he tries to help 10- and 11-year-old Jewish and Palestinian Israelis find common ground. The film paves the way not only for kid-size discussions about global politics and multiculturalism, but also for those delicate talks about what makes boys and girls so different (not much at all, as the film gently reveals). Mostly, you’ll love watching hesitant schoolkids become brave ballroom artists.

4. The Cave of the Yellow Dog

(2005, Germany and Mongolia; Subtitles) 7 and older

This gorgeous film will draw your family in with its cinematography of the Mongolian countryside and insight into a life that is certainly different than the one your kids are living. Nansal, a young Mongolian girl, is in charge of herding her family’s sheep by herself in the mountains. When she finds a dog who steals her heart, she must decide whether to obey her father or follow her desires. The Cave of the Yellow Dog will make American parents rethink their helicopter tendencies, and your kids will watch wide-eyed as children of their age experience a different level of independence.

5. Rabbit-proof Fence

(2002, Australia; English and aboriginal language) 9 and older

Loosely based on a true story, this movie tells how three mixed-race Aboriginal girls run away from the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth, Western Australia, to return to their aboriginal families, after being placed there by the government in 1931. The girls must walk for nine weeks along 1,500 miles of fence to find their way home while being tracked by officials. There are a couple of hard scenes, including one in which the children are forcibly torn away from their mother. But older kids will learn a lot about internment, racism and the Stolen Generations.

6. Canela

(2012, Mexico; subtitles) 9 and older

After Maria’s mom dies, her grandmother becomes very sad and doesn’t want to cook with Maria anymore. After a new cook is hired at the grandmother’s restaurant, Maria, helped by occasional visits from the spirit of her mother, must convince her grandma to cook once again. The lesson: You have to keep going even when bad things happen. 

7. Foreign Letters

(2012, USA; Vietnamese and Hebrew language with subtitles) 9 and older

A girl-power story that focuses on friendship, Foreign Letters tells the story of two sixth-grade girls who come together over the immigrant experience. Ellie is a lonely immigrant from Israel who befriends Thuy, a Vietnamese refugee. This film will help your kids see American culture through new eyes and encourage them to befriend people who need it.

8. Queen of Katwe

(2016, USA; English) 10 and older

Not an official foreign film because it's produced by ESPN Films and Walt Disney Pictures, but Queen of Katwe is filmed in Uganda with a mostly Ugandan cast and tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi, who lives in the Ugandan slum of Katwe. From Imdb: Due to an unexpected death in the family, Phiona, her older sister Night and younger brother Brian were taken out of school to help their tenacious mother sell maize on the streets. As a result Phiona is functionally illiterate and quickly faltering under the weight of life's hardships. One day, intrigued by the smell of porridge and the laughter of other children, Phiona and Brian stumble into Robert Katende's Sports Outreach Program. It is there, among other things the trained engineer teaches chess to interested children with hopes of putting rich kids in their place. After a time, the spirited Phiona develops a hidden talent and passion for chess which Katende encourages to the point of training her to be a tried and true prodigy.

The film shines a spotlight on what happens when girls are given education and the opportunity to pursue their passions and is inspiring to girls everywhere. Some serious themes, including homelessness and the implication of prostitution, makes this film best for kids ages 10 and older.

A few more picks...

Kirikou and the Sorceress

5 and older

This sweet French-language folktale (also available dubbed in English) features a heroic African toddler on an epic journey.

Ernest and Celestine

5 and older

A sweet French animated film dubbed in English, this tells the unlikely tale of friendship between a mouse and a bear.

Like Stars on Earth

7 and older

Introduce the kids to the fun of Bollywood with this story about an 8-year-old boy labeled as a troublemaker who just needs to find someone who understands him to turn things around.

The Secret of Kells

9 and older

Intense, artistic and dark, this magical animated Irish folktale is weird, wonderful and haunting enough to spook younger or sensitive kids.

A Cat in Paris

9 and older

This clever French animated drama is a cops-and-robbers film best suited to older elementary kids due to some violence.

The Illusionist

(the 2010 animation; there are other films by this name)

10 and older

This nearly wordless film, riddled with magic and mystery, is a French-Scottish drama set in 1959 about a down-on-his-luck illusionist called Tatischeff.

Whale Rider

10 and older

Pai, an 11-year-old girl in one of New Zealand’s patriarchal Maori tribes, yearns to take on a leadership role. But her grandfather is bound by tradition to pick a male leader.

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