Using Films in AP Human Geography

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beginning of content:

This speech is a token of my deep love and respect
for Koro Apirana, my grandfather.
My name is Paikea Apirana
And I come from a long line of chiefs stretching all the way
back to Hawaiiki where our ancient ones are
the ones that first heard the land crying and sent a man.
His name was also Paikea and I am his most recent descendant.
But I was not the leader my grandfather was expecting
and by being born I broke the line back to the ancient ones.
It wasn’t anybody’s fault. It just happened.
But we can learn. And if knowledge is given to everyone,
we can have lots of leaders.—Transcribed from Whale Rider, 2002

“Pai’s Speech” from Whale Rider. Dir. Niki Caro. South Pacific Pictures, 2002. Used with permission.

There are many reasons to use films in the AP® Human Geography classroom.

Teachers can use films to explain, elaborate, describe, or demonstrate concepts. Films can prompt discussion or research, or serve as an introduction to a unit. They can provide a method for directing student learning to a particular discovery. They can be used to validate and give life to concepts.

Not only are films visual, which is important because our students live in an exceptionally visual time, but they are comprehensive and contextual. Films are all-inclusive. Films place themes of human geography within real-world settings. Films develop ideas. Students can see the roots of motivation for ethnic conflict, migration, or cultural and economic change.

While there is measurement in the maps we use and the data we examine, there is also a great amount of humanity in the issues connected to the concepts displayed on those maps. Films encourage students to contemplate humanity on an individual scale, in situations where birth rates are high, conflict pervades, revolutions germinate, and women struggle.

In the speech for the grandfather from the film Whale Rider, Pai shares her own female perspective on leadership when she competes to be chief against the wishes of her grandfather and against tradition. This film, like many others, offers students the chance to make critical concepts personal, emotional, and sometimes humorous, thus adding another dimension to how and what students learn.

Steps for Teaching Through Films

It is critical to set the stage. Tell students something about the film, where it was made, who plays in it, why it was filmed, and why the class is watching it. Watching with a purpose is just as important for students as reading with a purpose. Investigate and emphasize the physical landscape of the film’s setting to help orient students to the location. The location for filming is often not the same as the setting for the film and needs to be acknowledged. Also, challenge students to look for a specific piece of information in the film that requires them to be conscientious observers. Some films may require some history or explanation about an event or person portrayed in the film before viewing. Often films are based on books that can be used in combination with film to enhance student learning. For instance, students could easily read Whale Rider, written by Witi Ihimaera, before the viewing to add another layer to the learning experience.

While Watching the Film

Always monitor the class while showing the film. Generally, when the teacher is interested, students are interested. Modeling the behavior you want students to exhibit can make for a good experience.

Sometimes I ask students to take notes, but more often I ask students to make two separate lists – one of physical characteristics and one of human characteristics – to direct their focus on the content of a film. For instance, when my students watch Whale Rider, I ask them to make a list of gender-related issues in the film. In which situations is Pai’s gender a problem?

It can be effective to stop the film to discuss a critical event, provide explanation, or direct students’ attention to a particular event.


Ask students to review the film and share their reactions. Give students time to formulate their own opinions about the film. Afterward, ask students to compose questions about the movie. Ask what questions are left unanswered for them. What questions did the movie inspire? Ask students to predict what might have happened by providing “what if” scenarios. Have them speculate about the impact of an event or concept in the film. Did any events in the film relate to their own experiences?

Concluding Activities

A scored panel discussion can be used to debate the concepts illustrated in a film by having students support opposing perspectives on an issue discussed in the film. For instance, have students speculate about the future of the Maori culture. Suggest to students that the island would make a great location for a vacation resort. Divide the class, and ask one group to develop arguments that promote development and the second group to develop arguments that oppose it. Have students discuss the impact of economic development on the people and physical landscape of the island. Ask students how each character in the film would likely respond to the economic and social changes resulting from the impending development. Require students to support their arguments using evidence from the text and other documented resources.

Use a mind-mapping exercise to organize the events of a film, either all of them or just events that provide evidence of the concepts being studied. This is also a good strategy for reviewing the movie before participating in a scored discussion or responding to essay questions. For more information on mind mapping, see Mind Maps: A Powerful Approach to Note Taking.

Connecting the concepts from the film to the textbook is another way to use film. Ask students to locate the concepts illustrated in the film in the textbook (provide page numbers). Have students record what the author says about the concept. If more than one human geography text is available, students can compare their findings by creating a matrix of responses in different books about the same concept.

Whale Rider Discussion Questions

Essay questions can help students recap the concepts from the film. Below, I share the questions I use when we watch Whale Rider.

  1. Describe the cultural landscape seen in the film. Give specific examples of how the landscape expresses the folk culture of the island.
  2. How does the conflict between the grandfather, Koro, and Pai’s father, Porourangi, express a threat to the Maori culture?
  3. Discuss the cultural forces that compel Pai and her grandfather to believe and act as they do in the film.
  4. Based on the events of the movie, compare the role of men and women in the Maori culture. Cite specific incidents where gender was a catalyst for conflict.
  5. In the film, the grandfather makes a reference to wanting his son to help his people. In what ways do you think the Maori people need help?

Whale Rider Project Ideas

  • Research the Maori culture, and identify its origins and diffusion. Describe how the Maori culture compares with those of its closest neighbors. How has the Maori culture been affected by Western culture?
  • How accurately do you think this film reflects the lives of modern Maori people? Support your answer with research about the culture, government, traditions, and current issues related to this group of people.

More Tips for Using Films in the Classroom

It is not necessary to show a film in its entirety. With the R-rated Good Bye Lenin! I show only the part where the mother is scheduled to come home from the hospital after having a heart attack. The son and daughter go to great lengths to re-create the East Berlin of the mother’s memories (while she was in a coma, the Berlin Wall fell and the ensuing changes occurred), but they have a difficult time when the West continues to make unwelcome inroads into their world.

The movie has much to offer about the communist system in Eastern Europe and the diffusion of Western culture. To hear a review of the movie and a discussion of the impact of globalization, listen to “Good Bye Lenin” at NPR.

Another R-rated film, The Motorcycle Diaries, has much to offer students in excerpts. The movie documents Che Guevara’s road trip through Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela as a young man. The human and physical landscape is breathtaking, showing a face of South America – the people, their lives, their history – that students may never witness. For NPR’s review of this movie, see Film Looks at Twentysomething Che Guevara.

  • You may choose to show only excerpts from A Day Without a Mexican, not because of its rating, but because this movie tends to be a bit repetitive. This film is a bit controversial and will provide opportunities to talk about a multitude of immigration issues – legal versus illegal immigrants, employment, immigration policy, culture, and more – while entertaining students. NPR provides an interview with the director and cowriter: “A Day Without a Mexican”: A Latino Mocumentary.

Films To Consider for Your Course

Here are a few of the films that can be effectively used in the AP Human Geography classroom. Many others can be added to this list.

City of Joy (contrasting cultures, rural-to-urban migration, corruption, poverty). See: Lesson Plan—City of Joy

A Day Without a Mexican (migration)

Gandhi (history, culture, self-determination, colonialism)

Good Bye Lenin! (diffusion of culture, east/west divide)

Hotel Rwanda (ethnic conflict) (The Frontline episode “Ghosts of Rwanda” provides background for the film.)

I Dreamed of Africa (gender issues)

In America (migration, population, AIDS)

The Motorcycle Diaries (political, culture, development)

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (culture)

The Secret of Roan Inish (folk culture) For a review by Roger Ebert, see: The Secret of Roan Inish.

The Snow Walker (diffusion of disease, contrasting cultures)

The Story of the Weeping Camel (agriculture/herding, nomadic life and customs, folk culture). See the National Geographic web page: The Story of the Weeping Camel and lesson, Weeping Camel: Finding Rituals in Our Daily Lives.

Whale Rider (gender issues). See the film’s website: Whale Rider.

Internet Resources

Greatest Films/Film Search Help has search tools for locating information about films.

Internet Movie Database provides a variety of information about old and new films.

Mid-Continent Public Library lists films based on books. You can search by name of book or author.

Teaching Psychology Through Film, Video provides information for using films in the psychology classroom. However, author Raymond J. Green’s advice can be easily adapted to other disciplines.

Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has a compilation of units on “Geography Through Film and Literature” that provides a comprehensive look at understanding geography through film.

Authored by

  • Mary Lynn Everhart
    Bethel High School
    Hampton, Virginia