Skip directly to content

Resources for Teachers

Documentary Films on American Religious Life

This page will introduce you to a range of documentary films on American religious life.  A few are ethnographic portraits you might use to immerse your students in the daily lives of diverse religious communities, like Welcome to Amish America and A Life Apart: Hasidism in America.  But most are focused on more specific aspects of contemporary religious life, like Taqwacore's portrait of a fledging Muslim-American punk rock scene, Fremont, USA's analysis of interfaith relations in a northern California suburb, or Rejoice and Shout's history of African-American gospel music.  Taken together, these films show the vibrant diversity and creativity of American religious life.

As with our filmography of feature films set in diverse religious communities, it is important to note that this is not a comprehensive or carefully curated list.  We have included films that speak to diverse traditions, but we certainly haven't covered everything.  We would love to hear your suggestions of additional films to include.  And we have not watched or taught each one of these films.  We would love to hear about your experiences teaching them, and to hear your concerns about any film that offers a biased or disrespectful portrait of a religious tradition or community.  Please help us maintain this list, and make it a powerful tool for teachers.

For more resources and films, see this helpful list of films for the religious studies classroom, and especially the website of The Journal of Religion and Film.  The site offers a wide range of materials that can enrich your students' interpretations of religion on film, including an extensive bibliography of scholarly articles and film reviews, all available in full-text on line. 

 

Buddhism and Martial Arts:

 

Shaolin Ulysses: Kung Fu Monks in America 2004 NR

If you get a kick out of kung fu, you'll love this exhilarating film that traces the journey of five kung fu monks in search of the American dream. Hailing from China's legendary Shaolin Temple, these Zen masters and kung fu stars have left their homeland to forge a new life and bring their special brand of martial arts to the West. Hear their personal stories and watch in awe as they display some of their best moves.

 

Christianity and Christian Communities:

 

Chase the Devil 1983 NR

Originally aired on PBS, these documentaries focus on the music and exuberant preaching styles of prominent religions in the southeastern United States, from the Baptists to the Holiness Church. The sights and sounds, combined with extensive interviews and personal accounts, offer a first-hand look at the myriad music and traditions that converge to create this geographic region's own unique, provocative culture.

 

Devil’s Playground 2002 NR

When Amish teens turn 16, they have the opportunity to venture out in the "Devil's Playground" and indulge in 21st-century vices such as drinking and smoking -- a period called "Rumspringa." This documentary tracks 18-year-old Faron's struggle to reconcile his drug addiction with his deeply ingrained desire to live his parents' Amish life. But ultimately, committing to the church will be his decision.

 

For the Bible Tells Me So 2007 NR

Director Daniel G. Karslake goes to the Bible to examine the ways in which conservative Christian groups have used -- and sometimes exploited -- scripture to deny human rights to gays and lesbians around the world.

 

Friends of God 2006 TV-14

Filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi takes a remarkable journey across the heartland to uncover the religious, cultural and political beliefs of evangelical Christians. Interviewing both leaders and rank-and-file believers and attending events such as a Christian wrestling match, Pelosi reveals a vibrant subculture whose convictions may surprise and possibly bewilder you.

 

Hell House 2001 NR

This documentary goes behind the scenes of the Hell House, a multimedia fire-and-brimstone performance designed to give its audiences a glimpse of what awaits those who stray from the path of a strict Christian life. Put on by the youth members of a church outside Dallas, the show draws thousands of visitors each year.

 

Jesus Camp 2007 PG-13

This riveting Oscar-nominated documentary offers an unfiltered look at a revivalist subculture in which devout Christian youngsters are being primed to deliver the fundamentalist community's religious and political messages. Building an evangelical army of tomorrow, the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, N.D., is dedicated to deepening the preteens' spirituality and sowing the seeds of political activism.

 

Knocking 2006 NR

There are seven million Jehovah’s Witnesses in 230 countries worldwide. They spend 1.3 billion hours a year ministering door-to-door, making them one of America’s favorite punch lines. Despite their 130-plus-year history, this Christian group is still often derided and misunderstood. Knocking opens the door on Jehovah's Witnesses, revealing how they have impacted society in ways far greater and more surprising than the spreading of their faith.

 

Let the Church Say Amen 2004 NR

This illuminating documentary from Academy Award-nominated director David Petersen follows members of the World Missions for Christ Church in Washington, D.C., as they work to fulfill their dreams of a better life. Standing at the helm of his tiny, storefront black church is the unflappable Pastor Bobby Perkins, who has his missionary work cut out in a setting that's teeming with drugs, violence and homelessness.

 

Rejoice and Shout 2010 PG

Noted music documentarian Don McGlynn takes viewers on a journey through 200 years of African-American Christian music, using performance footage, audio, photos and interviews to document the history and power of gospel music.

 

Soldiers in the Army of God 2005 NR

Connected by the Internet and an unshakable belief in their cause, a tight-knit group of extreme pro-life activists who -- all members of the Army of God -- have turned to violence to abolish abortion. This fascinating documentary examines several of the soldiers involved in the ongoing "battle," including Paul Hill, the man who committed the infamous 1993 murders of two abortion clinic workers in Pensacola.

 

Waiting For Armageddon 2009 NR

In this eye-opening, equitable documentary, filmmakers Kate Davis, David Heilbroner and Franco Sacchi explore the lives of evangelical Christians who believe that Armageddon is imminent and that Israel will be the site of Christ's second coming. The film follows evangelicals as they prepare for the apocalypse and examines how their beliefs have influenced the U.S. government's relationships with Israel and the Muslim world.

 

Welcome to Amish America 2004 NR

This PBS documentary takes you into Amish communities and dwellings and offers up fascinating re-creations of historic Amish homes. Interviews with community members shed light on their protected culture and religion, while demonstrations of routine chores, such as baking in a wood-burning stove and doing laundry using "horsepower," underscore the simplicity of the Amish lifestyle.

 

Witnesses of Jehovah 1988 NR

Leonard and Marjorie Chretien were loyal Jehovah's Witnessesfor decades, and in 1975, they waited expectantly for the end of the world. They even sold their business and home to become better followers, but when Armageddon didn't come, they questioned the Watchtower Society leadership. Disillusioned, they made this film to educate people about the inner workings of the religion.

 

Hinduism and Yoga:

 

Ashtanga, NY 2003 NR

Yoga enthusiasts take their practice to a higher level in this fitness documentary that reveals the power of Ashtanga, a high-energy regimen that works the mind, body and soul and promotes strength and healing. Filmed around the same time as the tragedy of September 11, Ashtanga, NY shows how yogis and other practitioners helped a populace find peace during a terrible and taxing time for the city's denizens.

 

Islam and Muslim Communities:

 

 

Allah Made Me Funny 2008 NR

Playing to sold-out venues across America, the Allah Made Me Funny tour bridges cultural gaps through stand-up by some of the funniest Muslim comics working today. This performance program captures the groundbreaking tour's best moments.

 

New Muslim Cool 2009 NR

This documentary follows Puerto Rican American rapper Hamza Pérez, a former drug dealer who converted to Islam, became a grassroots activist and moved to inner-city Pittsburgh to establish a religious community. While Pérez raises his children and settles into a new marriage, the FBI raids his mosque. Now he must delve even deeper into his faith to forge connections with other communities in a post-9/11 world.

 

Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football, and the American Dream 2011 NR

Fordson: Faith, Fasting, Football follows a predominantly Arab-American high school football team from a working-class Detroit suburb as they practice for their big cross-town rivalry game during Ramadan, revealing a community holding onto its Islamic faith and the American Dream while struggling to gain acceptance in post 9/11 America.

 

On a Wing and a Prayer 2009 NR

The gently funny film On a Wing and a Prayer follows Monem Salam as he enrolls in an open-minded flying school. Monem is the son of a Pakistani commercial pilot. The family of his wife, Iman, is Palestinian and, although initially dubious about the marriage, now accepts the cultural differences. These modern-day Americans cast off stereotypes and refuse to succumb to victimhood.

 

Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam 2004 NR

This raucous documentary profiles the nascent Muslim punk-rock subculture. Director Omar Majeed hits the road with various groups for a problem-plagued tour across the U.S. and to Lahore, Pakistan, where the musicians continue their mission to thrash and shock, and both skewer and celebrate their deeply felt religion.

 

Judaism and Jewish Communities:

 

Four Seasons Lodge 2008 NR

In this inspiring documentary, a group of Holocaust survivors converges -- for what may be the last time -- in a bungalow in New York's Catskill Mountains to celebrate life with song, dance, food, bawdy humor and memories of their darkest days. In his directorial debut, New York Times journalist Andrew Jacobs, with cinematographer Albert Maysles, captures an affecting passion for life shared among this family of friends.

 

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America 1997 NR

It took seven years to make this intriguing documentary about the world of the Hasidim, who exist in an insular universe (one that few outsiders ever get to see) and uncompromisingly adhere to Jewish ritual. Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker narrate this illuminating look at a people who speak Yiddish and dress distinctively yet cherish family, community and a lifeof meaning that coincides with most Americans' core principles.

 

Praying with Lior 2007 NR

Lior Liebling, a Jewish boy with Down syndrome, spends his days praying endlessly to God, much to the delight -- and occasional befuddlement -- of those around him. Follow Lior, nicknamed "the little rebbe," as he approaches his bar mitzvah. Ilana Trachtman's coming-of-age documentary paints a touching portrait of a family, while raising tough questions about notions of faith and disability.

 

Interfaith Relations and American Religious Politics:

 

Brother Born Again 2001 NR

Seeking to renew her relationship with her born-again Christian brother, Julia Pimsleur traveled to a remote Alaskan island, where brother Marc has lived for 10 years with his spiritual family. The resulting film captures Pimsleur -- a bisexual Jewish New Yorker -- as she searches for an understanding of her sibling's chosen life path, and in the process, delves into the definition of family and explores family dynamics.

 

The Calling 2010 TV-PG

What does it take to truly commit one's life to serving God? In this documentary series, seven Muslims, Catholics, Evangelical Christians and Jews embark on a life-changing journey to become professional clergy.

 

Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath 2006 NR

The vicious killing of a turbaned Sikh in the wake of 9/11 prompts college student Valarie Kaur to travel across the United States to try to make sense of a divided country. Interweaving authoritative analysis with Kaur's odyssey, this thought-provoking documentary -- which takes viewers from America's heartland to rural India -- follows her attempt to understand who counts as "American" in times of crisis.

 

Fremont, USA 2009 NR

Fremont, California is a city transformed by new immigration, with vibrant communities of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, and Buddhists from several nations. Through civic engagement and interfaith action, strangers have become neighbors. Yet Fremont has also faced real challenges, especially after 9/11. When Alia Ansari, a Muslim woman, is murdered, some wonder if it was a hate crime: How will the wider community respond?

 

Lord, Save Us From Your Followers 2008 PG-13

In the spirit of wondering why we all can't just get along, filmmaker Dan Merchant takes to the streets to ask average folks about religious faith and why it seems to be such a divisive force in America's so-called "culture wars." In addition to man-on-the-street perspectives, the thought-provoking (and refreshingly civil) conversation includes input from activists on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

 

So Help Me God 2008 NR

Though he has it "all" -- a successful career, great car and terrific wife -- Simon Cole lacks something significant: a meaningful connection with God. To discover his own spirituality, he sets off across America to learn about diverse religions. A collaboration between Simon and his brothers, Nigel and Ben, this personal documentary features memorable encounters with Mormons, Muslims, Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses.