15 Recommended Films about Migration

by Aakanksha Gupta, edited by Adam Strom

The Steerage - photo of ship passengers by Alfred Stieglitz

The Steerage – photo by Alfred Stieglitz

Film is one of the most powerful means of conveying stories as well as reflecting, shaping and challenging people’s perceptions and beliefs. Short and full-length films are able to immerse viewers in both shared and unfamiliar narratives in an unparalleled way. 

Migration is one of the most important, multifaceted, and sometimes controversial issues  of our time, and films are a great way to delve deeper into these topics and engage people in open dialogue. We put together this collection of long and short films that highlight many aspects of migration. To support teachers interested in using any of these pieces in their classrooms, we have aligned them with questions from our Learning Arc. We acknowledge that these films will be received differently based on students’ differing experiences, backgrounds and identities, and we encourage teachers and students to explore how our identities and perspectives shape how we respond to media as much as possible. Here are the main questions from our Learning Arc, which you might keep in mind as you examine each film. Please let us know what you think!

This is part of our Media Highlight Series which aims to support curriculum about migration through the exploration of storytelling – this includes literature, film and more.

1. I Learn America (2013)
Directed by Jean-Michel Dissard & Gitte Peng

Image result for i learn america

Image: Kanopy

The International High School at Lafayette, Brooklyn is dedicated to the personal, academic and civic growth of newly arrived immigrant youth from all over the world. I Learn America is a film about five resilient teenagers at this public school. Watch it to learn the students’ experiences as they navigate cultures, coming of age in a new place, learning English, interacting with family members, and more. You might use this accompanying guide, written by our Director Adam Strom for Facing History and Ourselves.

2. Vida Diferida (2014)
Directed by Brenda Ávila-Hanna

Vida Diferida

Image: YouTube

Brenda Ávila-Hanna is a filmmaker and educator whose films focus on transnational stories between Latin America and the U.S. Brenda’s short film Vida Diferida focuses on the life of Vanessa, an undocumented youth who is one of Brenda’s former students at a middle school. This film teaches audiences about both Vanessa’s specific experiences as well as the broader realities and struggles of undocumented youth and their families in the U.S. Educators, learn more about the film and how you might teach it through this interview we did with Brenda. You can access the film on the New Day Films website.

3. Brooklyn (2015)
Directed by John Crowley

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Image: IMDB

Based on Coim Tóibín’s novel, Brooklyn is the story of Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who migrates to the U.S. in the 1950s. We identify Brooklyn as a great example of a film that addresses many nuances of migration. As the story unfolds, we learn about Eilis’s life in Ireland, what prompted her move, what her journey was like, what followed in the new land and how her migration impacted her relationship with her family. Brooklyn explores an experience often shared by humans who move (voluntarily and involuntarily): shifting understanding of the ideas of home and belonging in relationship to the communities and circumstances around us. 

4. Fatima’s Drawings (2016)
Directed by Magnus Wennman

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Image: Vimeo

What are the experiences of children who have been forced to leave their homes? Explore this question with the story of Fatima, a 9 year old refugee who was forced to flee her home in Syria due to war. Fatima and her family now live in Norberg, Sweden, where she redefines her understanding of “home”. With the help of oral history, drawings and animation, the film provides insights into Fatima’s memory of her native country and her journey to a new land. Educators, consider these reflection questions as you discuss this film in classrooms.

5. The Namesake (2006)
Directed by Mira Nair

The Namesake (2006)

Image: IMDB

To quote Jhumpa Lahiri, “Like many immigrant offspring I felt intense pressure to be two things, loyal to the old world and fluent in the new, approved of on either side of the hyphen,” (Facing History and Ourselves). Similar to many immigrant-origin youth and Lahiri, the protagonist of this film Gogol (Kal Penn) is constantly navigating the expectations and pressures to be both Indian and American. He does so while he tries to relate to society and his parents, who moved to the U.S. from Bengal, India. The story takes a deep look at the connections between culture, names and language, and how those shape people’s identities.

Educators incorporating this film into curriculum – consider our guiding resource on names, culture and identity.

6. Waking Dream series (2018)
Directed by Theo Rigby, iNation Media

Image result for ination media

Image: Twitter

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was established in 2012, and has provided thousands of undocumented youth temporary permission to stay in the U.S. DACA was rescinded in September 2017, an action that has had life-changing consequences for a large number of young people and their communities. As of June 30, 2019, there are 660,880 active DACA recipients in the U.S (USCIS). 

Created by iNation Media, the Waking Dreams is a series that explores the impact of this policy development on the personal lives of six undocumented young people. The videos tie together the stories of these individuals, who are in the “in-between” i.e. navigating their lives with a fear of deportation, while hoping for a path to citizenship. You can watch the videos and access a Dialogue Guide and lesson plans through this iNation webpage.

7. An American Tail (1986)
Directed by Don Bluth


Image: Wikipedia

The animated film An American Tail is the story of Fievel Mousekewitz, a Russian-Jewish mouse who is separated from his family after they fled their home in Shostka, Ukraine due to religious persecution. We think this film is a great way to engage younger learners in discussions about immigration. 

8. The Godfather II (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

Poster of the film The Godfather II

Image: Wikipedia

This sequel and prequel to The Godfather (1972) uses two parallel timelines to explore intergenerational stories and connections within the Corleone family. While some have felt the focus on the mafia can lead to anti-Italian stereotypes, others have praised this award winning film for its depiction of Italian American immigrant life at the turn of the 20th century in New York. The scenes that follow young Vito Andolini’s voyage, in steerage, from Sicily through Ellis Island, are powerful recreations of an important period of immigration history.

9. The Italian Americans (2015)
Written and produced by John Maggio

Italian immigrants at Ellis Island (1905)

Image: Wikipedia

Moving from fiction to history, consider using excerpts of this PBS series exploring Italian-American immigration to the U.S. The film covers a wide range of topics and themes including integration and belonging, pressures of assimilate, stereotypes, the reasons for migration, relationships between the first, second, and third generation, and includes several important media figures and historical incidents including the trial and execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.

10. Clouds over Sidra (2015)
Directed by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk

Daily life in Zaatari refuggee camp in Jordan, located 10 km east of Mafraq, Jordan on June 04, 2014. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank










Over 80,000 Syrians who fled war and violence reside in the Za’tari Refugee Camp in Jordan (UNVR). Clouds Over Sidra highlights the perspectives of refugees in the camp through virtual reality. Immersive technology such as VR strives to foster empathy and engagement across viewers. This film’s storytelling teaches us about the daily experiences of Sidra, a 12 year old girl, as she interacts with those around her.

11. The Immigrant (1917)
Directed by Charlie Chaplin

File:CC The Immigrant 1917.JPG

Image: Wikimedia

This silent short stars is one of the first depictions of immigrant life in the history of cinema. British comedian Charlie Chaplin as the protagonist Little Tramp, an immigrant. We learn about his experiences traveling to the U.S. via ship, his relationships with other passengers, and their interactions with the new land once they arrive. While the film is, for the most part, a warm portrayal of an immigrant’s journey, some find the resolution of the film’s romantic plotline troubling. There is educational value in comparing Chaplin’s presentation of immigrant life with more contemporary media depictions of immigration.

12. Bao (2018)
Directed by Domee Shi

Bao is a short film that explores the connections between culture and food, family and empty nest syndrome. Educators, we recommend Bao as you discuss the experiences of acculturation with your students. Consider using
our reflection questions to deepen students’ understanding of these topics.

13. North Star Fading (2018)
Illustrated by Karrie Fransman, sound and voiceover by Lula Mebrahtu

North Star Fading is a short film inspired by the testimonies of 4 Eritrean refugees. Using the creative zoom animation technique, it tells the stories of refugees who fled their homes to make the journey across three countries – Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya – to Europe. Go to the official website of the organization Positive Negatives to learn more.

14. Persepolis (2007)
Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

File:Persepolis film.jpg

Image: Wikipedia

Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persopolis is based on her family’s experiences fleeing Tehran, Iran following the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The film adaptation follows the story of Marjane and her family’s experiences navigating civil and social unrest in Iran. This film helped us explore the role of environmental push and pull forces as well as personal narratives in people’s decisions to migrate.

15. The Chinese Exclusion Act – PBS (2018)
Directed by Ric Burns

The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first legislation that prevented an entire ethnic group from migrating to the U.S. Steeplechase’s documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” tells the story within the context of 19th century Chinese immigration to America.

The film aired on PBS, and the producers explain that the Chinese Exclusion Act is: “a deeply American story – about immigration and national identity, civil rights and human justice; about how we define who can be an American, and what being an American means – the film will examine the economic, cultural, social, legal, racial and political dimensions of the law; the forces and events that gave rise to it; and the effect it has had, and continues to have, on American culture and identity.” Learn more via this link.