Using Film to Teach and Learn International Law

Using Film to Teach and Learn International Law

Max Zimmerman, MJIL Articles Edotor

The main purpose of a film usually is not to educate its audience. This is particularly true of narrative films which are made in varying degrees for artistic expression, entertainment, or financial gain. Even those films which are inspired by or based on real events rarely give the audience a complete or even accurate account of what happened and why. It would be absurd to believe that after seeing Schindler’s List, someone knew and understood the history of the holocaust. Thus using narrative films as a pedagogical tool to teach law seems wholly insufficient. Practicing law requires not only a comprehensive knowledge of the law but an application of the law to the facts, which also need to be known comprehensively.  To practice international law an understanding of not only the specific facts, but the historical and political context is also crucial. Yet many films present issues relating to international law. These films may not be able to replace lectures or readings, however, if used properly, they can supplement traditional approaches to teaching international law, international humanitarian law, and human rights law.

Films raise questions of international law in two ways, they dramatize actual events, or they create new scenarios which may implicate international law. Films that dramatize real events serve two purposes. First they allow students to connect emotionally with the subject matter. A film is usually far more visceral than written descriptions, particularly those found in textbooks. Following World War II there were certainly written descriptions of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, but few were as effecting as Jean Renoir’s 32 minute film Night and Fog. Night and Fog, a documentary that is blunt and difficult to watch. Narrative films about the holocaust such as Schindler’s List or The Pianist, though still hard to take may be more accessible for some viewers.  Screening one of these films during lessons on the Genocide Convention can moves the discussion beyond an abstract understanding that genocide is bad, and that the Genocide Convention aims to prevent it. Emotionally invested students are incentivized to question how well the convention prevents or punishes genocide.

A film does not have to be based on real events to be useful. For example Neill Blomkamp’s film District 9 raises numerous issues of international law, particularly human rights, refugee, and asylum law. In District 9 aliens arrive suddenly and en masse in Johannesburg, South Africa. The film follows the efforts of a UN bureaucrat as he deals with the refugee camp/ghetto the aliens live in. Although it’s mostly a commentary on apartheid South Africa, students could be asked to apply international law, such as the Vienna Convention on Refugees, to events in the film. For example what legal obligations does South Africa owe to these refugees and are they meeting those obligations? This type of exercise trains students in the skills will need to excel in fact-pattern based exams.

The pedagogical potential of film is great but not without risks.  Films, just like readings or lectures, are only beneficial if students actively engage in them. Films have the benefit of more easily engaging some, but others might view a film as a break from normal lectures and not approach it with same rigor as other parts of the course. Other students might engage in the film, but approach it as a substitute, and not a supplement, to other assigned materials leaving them with a false sense that they understand the material, I personally have fallen victim to this on several occasions. But these risks can be mitigated if films are presented in a serious manner with an understanding of the mediums limitations.


Ten Other Narrative Films to Consider:

  1. In The Loop
  2. The Whistleblower
  3. Battle of Algiers
  4. In This World
  5. The Ghost Writer
  6. Judgement at Nuremberg
  7. No Man’s Land
  8. Waltz with Bashir
  9. Munich
  10. Breaker Morant