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Children and Media

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Family-Friendly Foreign Films

By Homa Tavangar

A family watching a movie together.

I've discovered a not-so-secret weapon to diversify and improve the quality of media my kids consume, that I can enjoy too: family-friendly foreign films.

Good movies help transport audiences to places and experiences we might never have imagined. Foreign films can take us even farther—with an added benefit: we begin to appreciate and care about other cultures when we see them. The more we "see," the more we are likely to care. When our children view cultures through foreign films, they more naturally relate to the wider world and are transported to exotic locales—without even possessing a passport.

When you have a chance to see these brilliant films, "Don't just press play," counsels veteran media educator Nicole Dreiske. "Prime children for discussion before viewing so they look forward to talking about what they've just watched. Talk quietly to children while watching with them, just the way you'd talk to them while reading a book. This acclimates children to communicating what they're thinking and leads naturally to discussion." By watching and discussing these films, your child will open up their imagination. A desire for learning a language can be cultivated.

To get started, here are a few of my favorite foreign films for ages four and up. They're readily available through public libraries, Netflix, and independent film sites. Pair the film with a snack that goes with the theme for a memorable, multisensory experience.

  • The Red BalloonThe Red Balloon: Can't visit Paris anytime soon? Let a boy's quest to catch a red balloon through the streets of Paris transport you and your little one there. There's almost no dialogue in this classic 1956 magical meditation on childhood. Snack pairing: A fresh, warm croissant.

  • Ponyo Ponyo: A Japanese take on "The Little Mermaid," this delightful film by Hayao Miyazaki serves as a gentle introduction to anime, which has inspired many American kids to study Japanese. A tsunami occurs during the film, so this might be particularly apt (and could serve as a springboard for discussion), but if there are particular sensitivities following the recent tragedy in Japan, be aware. Snack pairing: Sushi—whether with just cucumber or real fish.
  • My Neighbor Totoro My Neighbor Totoro: Once you've seen Japanese animation, you'll want more. In spite of its fantasy theme, "Totoro," also by anime master Miyazaki, offers a realistic version of children’s lives in the Japanese countryside. Snack pairing: Pocky® snacks or seaweed chips.
  • Kirikou and the Sorceress Kirikou and the Sorceress: Kirikou is a lovable baby-hero in this animated film showcasing West African art and cultural legends, with music by Senegalese icon Youssou N'Dour. There’s some suspense, but I was comfortable showing it to my five-year-old. Parents should know women are drawn bare-breasted, in the style of the culture, and little Kirikou is shown innocently in his "birthday suit." Snack pairing: Tropical fruit salad.
  • Cave of the Yellow Dog The Cave of the Yellow Dog: Few of us get to travel to Mongolia, where rural life seems so different from ours; yet in this film, we see families' concerns are universal. Watch a version with subtitles for a more authentic experience; a dubbed version is also available. Snack pairing: Plain yogurt with honey.

For slightly older elementary children, see award-winners "The Secret of Kells" (Ireland), "Alamar" (Mexico/Italy), "Children of Heaven" (Iran), "The Great Match" (set in Mongolia, Brazil, Niger). Documentaries like "Babies" and "Winged Migration" transport all ages all over the world.

Looking for more films? Take a weekend trip to an international children's film festival. Annual festivals include those in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and others have sprung up in Danville, CA, Asheville, NC and many more places. If these aren't feasible, schools and community groups are launching their own film fests, with guidance from curators in Chicago and New York. With so much access to great, diverse, stimulating content, the whole world is just a screen away!

What's your favorite family-friendly foreign film?

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Homa Tavangar is the author of “Growing Up Global,” the mother of three children ages 7 to 17, and a frequent speaker to audiences ranging from CEOs to K-12 communities.

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