Posted by: Geoff Wing | October 14, 2009

Culturally Intelligent Movies

Planet B-Boy

Planet B-Boy

Living in a different culture is the best way to gain cultural awareness, but can you also get it while eating popcorn? Sure, if you choose the right movies.

I’d say that culturally intelligent movies are those which represent the target culture or subculture in an authentic light. Some are created by cultural insiders, like Japanese director Hidekazu Koreeda’s movie about Japanese families, “Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo)”. Others are created by perceptive and empathetic outsiders, like Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee and female author Annie Proulx’s movie about gay ranch-hands in Wyoming in the 1960’s, “Brokeback Mountain”.

Here’s some of my favorite culturally authentic movies listed by category. I’ll explore others in future posts.


Up the Yangzhe: From Canada, a documentary on social and economic change in China following the massive Three Gorge’s dam project. Economic changes cause culture changes, and this film is masterful for illustrating how families adapt to that economic change. More than other documentaries, this shows how cultural change really starts from people change.

Afghan Star: A decidedly neutral documentary following the Afghan Star reality TV show’s three winning contestants, complete with death threats against a female singer. The widely different ethnicities, social differences, and social change within Afghanistan are on full view here. If culture is as invisible as the air around us, then culture is most interesting when it changes like the air whipped into an unpredictable windstorm.

Pray The Devil Back To Hell: How a multi-faith woman’s movement ended Liberia’s bloody civil war by demanding the removal of  President Charles Taylor, the warlords engaged around him, and the culture of fighting.


Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo): From Japan, a portrayal of family dynamics exceptional for its realistic acting and authentic storyline. Although the setting is Tokyo, the emotional and communication barriers are universal, as is the habit of waiting until it’s too late. Japanese-speaking viewers will revel in how polite self-effacing social manners slowly reveal themselves as relationship-limiting complaints.

Amreeka: Warm and dark at the same time, this captures the adjustments that a Palestinian family faces as they settle in the US. Cultural mutual incomprehensibility is illustrated through the comical misunderstandings that one has in a foreign culture, plus the dark, disguised distrust that might lurk underneath.

The Kite Runner: Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the Afghan-American experience from a writer with firsthand experience. A remarkable illustration of the how civil unrest causes one’s neighbors to  become enemies, and how ethnic identities are perpetuated.

The Year My Parents Went On Vacation: A Brazilian film focusing on a very diverse multicultural neighborhood in the city of Sao Paulo in 1970. A Brazilian friend of Japanese ancestry who was raised in that same neighborhood at that time marvels at the realism of the film. A warm illustration of life as the child of a Jewish political dissident in a very diverse city.

Alice’s House: From Brazil, an understated observation of the clash of gender roles in a Sao Paulo household. My Brazilian friend is impressed by the film’s authenticity.


Planet B-Boy: Documentary filmakers follow finalists in an international break-dancing competition. Moving from country to country, we see wildly different approaches in how they prepare to win. Because the director is Asian-American, the cultural challenges the Korean and Japanese teams face in Europe are shown with accurate sensitivity.


Young@Heart: A US documentary follows a group of the very elderly who extend their spirits and lives by doing lively and challenging rock and roll concerts.

Cloud 9 (Wolke Neun): from Germany, a hyper-realistic and powerful treatment of love, longing, and sex after 70.


  1. What movies have you learned from? Please share!

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