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  • Lesson plan
  • Grades 11-12,
  • Grades 9-10

Honest Truths: Ethics in Documentary Film

Films Overview

The Distant Barking of Dogs by Simon Lereng Wilmont

Filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary follows 10-year-old Oleg over a year, witnessing the gradual erosion of his innocence beneath the pressures of the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine.

Oleg lives with his beloved grandmother Alexandra in the small village of Hnutove. Having no other place to go, Oleg and Alexandra stay as others leave the village. Life becomes increasingly difficult with each passing day, and there is no end to the war in sight.

In the now half-deserted village, Oleg and Alexandra are the only true constants in each other’s lives, and the film shows both how fragile such close relationships are and how crucial they are for survival. Through Oleg’s perspective, the film examines what it means to grow up in a war zone. It portrays how a child’s struggle to discover the world is intertwined with all the dangers and challenges the war presents.

The Distant Barking of Dogs unveils the consequences of war bearing down on the children in eastern Ukraine and, by natural extension, the scars and life lessons this generation will carry with them into the future.

The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer

When the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military in 1965, small-time gangster Anwar Congo and his friends helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals. Some nations with histories of similar crimes against humanity have created truth and reconciliation initiatives and even jailed perpetrators. In Indonesia, the perpetrators are still in power, and death squad members are honored for their patriotism.

In a mind-bending twist, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer and his Indonesian co-director (who remains anonymous for his own safety) offer Anwar and his “crew” a chance to tell their story in any way they choose. Their choice: to dramatize their brutal deeds in the style of the American westerns, musicals and gangster movies they love—with themselves as the stars. The result is a nightmarish vision of a banal culture of impunity in which killers joke about crimes against humanity on television chat shows.

For more information on the film and additional background on the 1965 Indonesian genocide, download the Discussion Guide for The Act of Killing.

On Her Shoulders by Alexandria Bombach

Twenty-three-year-old Nadia Murad’s life is a dizzying array of exhausting undertakings—from giving testimony before the United Nations to visiting refugee camps to bearing her soul in media interviews and one-on-one meetings with top government officials. Repeating her traumatic story to the world, this ordinary young woman finds herself thrust onto the international stage as the voice of her people.

In On Her Shoulders, filmmaker Alexandria Bombach follows this strong-willed young woman, who survived the 2014 genocide of the Yazidis in Northern Iraq and escaped the hands of ISIS to become a relentless beacon of hope for her people, even though at times she longs to set aside this monumental burden and simply lead an ordinary life.

For more information on the film and additional background on the 2014 Yazidi genocide, download the Discussion Guide for On Her Shoulders.

About the authors

ALLISON MILEWSKI

Allison Milewski has developed media education resources for a range of award-winning filmmakers and national media organizations, including PBS LearningMedia, Independent Television Services (ITVS), Latino Public Broadcasting, HBO Documentaries, and Tribeca Film Institute. She is also the founder of the international media education program, PhotoForward.org.