The 6 Best Foreign Films for Family Movie Night

Screen shot from the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda.

I recently had a magical experience watching a subtitled foreign film with my three-year-old daughter. I was reading the subtitles aloud to her as she watched the visuals with me, and it felt like I was reading a living storybook to her.

A mere eight minutes into the film she was moved to tears by the young actors’ portrayal of a circumstance with which she clearly identified. Despite being choked up myself, I managed to read on through the film until it reached its beautiful conclusion.

“I want to watch it again!” she excitedly proclaimed and went on requesting to watch it again for days.

Many Americans cringe internally at the idea of watching a foreign-language film. A friend of mine once joked that he watched movies so that he didn’t have to read the book. So why on earth would he want to watch a movie that made him read subtitles?!

While America is producing more movies and shows for streaming than ever before, there is also a wealth of foreign-made media accessible to us via the internet. Brave viewers undaunted by subtitles will be richly rewarded by the new worlds and cultures opened up in these films.

Here are six films I recommend to Christian families wishing to broaden their children’s horizons. Cultivating a vision and heart for mission in our kids begins by exposing them to people living in different countries and cultures. So, pop some corn, crowd onto the couch, kick your feet up, turn off the lights, and get ready for a virtual cross-cultural trip around the world.

These beautifully crafted films are more than an entertaining escape—they’re an invitation to discuss important truths with your kids about the gospel and the way it relates to people living in other cultures. We’ve divided the list into three groups: films appropriate for all ages including small children, films for young teens, and films for older teens.

The Best Foreign Films for the Whole Family

I’ll start with my favorite foreign film on the list (and it’s also the one that captivated my young daughter).

Children of Heaven (Iran, 1997)

Children of Heaven tells the simple story of young Ali who loses his little sister’s shoes and attempts to recover them. The film’s plot chronicles the children’s teamwork as they share a single pair of shoes, the moral dilemma they face when they find the shoes in the possession of another, and the older brother’s participation in a footrace to win the third-place prize of new sneakers. In my opinion, the brilliant child actors and thoroughly engrossing story make this a rare, perfect film.

Topics of Discussion
Parents can use Ali and his sister as models of a loving relationship between siblings. They can also discuss how the children try to help their poor father and ill mother. It may take a keen eye to catch the wonderful sign of hope at the end of the film. Talk through this and its implications for the children and their relationship with their father. An online lesson plan is also available from Portland State University.

Where to Watch
Children of Heaven is available on DVD and streaming via iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Netflix, and Amazon.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog (Mongolia, 2005)

Slice-of-life films can be some of the most compelling stories as they simply document people going about their daily lives. The pseudo-documentary The Cave of the Yellow Dog follows a young girl and her nomadic family as they care for their livestock and live in a yurt in the beautiful and remote landscape of Mongolia. The plot loosely revolves around a wild puppy the girl finds in a cave and adopts as a pet despite her father’s disapproval.

Topics of Discussion
American children will enjoy this glimpse into the daily routines of a Mongolian family. You might want to point out and discuss the various scenes in which the family members observe Buddhist and superstitious practices. An old woman tells a fable about a yellow dog (from which the film earns its title) that is about reincarnation. Use our “Basics of Buddhism” article to discuss how the Buddhist idea of rebirth differs from what the Bible says about being born again.

Where to Watch
The Cave of the Yellow Dog is only available on DVD and can be purchased from Amazon or rented from Netflix. You may also find it in your local public library.

Foreign Films for Preteens and Older

The Hundred-Foot Journey (France, 2014)

Definitely the most accessible film in this list, The Hundred-Foot Journey is in English despite its French setting and Indian characters. It’s a Hollywood production starring the wonderful actress Helen Mirren. The story focuses on an Indian family that immigrates to France and opens an Indian restaurant directly across the street from a top-rated French restaurant run by the proud and highly competitive Madame Mallory (Mirren). Cultures clash, and an oft-hilarious war ensues between the two businesses. While the film addresses serious issues, it is also full of delightful comedic moments and, yes, sumptuous food.

Topics of Discussion
This movie is packed full of life lessons that parents can easily connect back to Scripture. Loving your neighbor as yourself is a central struggle for the characters in this film, as well as prejudice and jealousy. Discuss how the characters evolved over the course of the film as they realize that their enemies can, in fact, be their friends. Parents can also challenge kids to think of ways to help immigrants in their community adjust to life in a new culture by showing the love of Christ.

Where to Watch
The Hundred-Foot Journey is available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be streamed from iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon.

Wadjda (Saudi Arabia, 2012)

Ten-year-old Wadjda’s dream is to own a bicycle to ride like her neighborhood friend Abdullah, who is a boy. However, unfavorable attitudes about women and bicycles cause her parents to refuse. She decides to enter a qur’anic recitation contest with the aim of using the prize money to buy the bike herself. In a neorealist style, the movie Wadjda highlights the challenges girls and women face due to the restrictions of conservative Islam.

Topics of Discussion
Parents of American girls will have a lot to discuss about the freedoms they enjoy in contrast with Wadjda and her mother. Not all of Wadjda’s behavior and decisions are commendable; help your children navigate the decisions she made. The subplot of Wadjda’s father taking a second wife because her mother cannot give him a son is worth exploring. Finally, share your opinions about the end of the film. Was it a happy ending? A sad one? Or both? The Providence Children’s Film Festival has a great Wadjda film guide available online.

Interesting Note
Wadjda is not only the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia but also the first directed by a Saudi woman. It was also the first Saudi Arabian film submitted to the Academy Awards for nomination. As a result of the movie, the nation relaxed their rules about women and bikes. Now women are permitted to ride bikes in parks when accompanied by a male guardian.

Where to Watch
Wadjda is available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be streamed on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube, and Amazon.

Foreign Films for Older Teens and Adults

I Am Not a Witch (Zambia, 2017)

For most American children, the word witch conjures up the fantastical image of a long-nosed woman with a black hat riding a broomstick. However, in many African countries, witches are still believed to be very real and very dangerous. Women, especially those who are elderly, are accused of being witches and forced into camps where they are separated from society and “magically” restrained from doing harm.

In I Am Not a Witch, a nine-year-old, orphan girl is accused of witchcraft in Zambia and forced into a labor camp. The filmmaker presents the story in all of its cruel absurdity. Viewers will laugh at the ridiculousness of it all while at the same time clench their fists in frustration at the reality of the persecution of these women.

Topics of Discussion
African traditional religion uses fear to control people. Discuss how fear dominates the actions of the characters in the movie. Talk about how those in leadership take advantage of these outcasts instead of helping them. Think of the challenges Christians may have in breaking these long-held superstitions about witches and bad magic.

The film implies a character commits suicide, though there is no graphic violence on screen.

Where to Watch
I Am Not a Witch is available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be streamed on iTunes, Vudu, FandangoNow, and Amazon.

Timbuktu (Mali, 2014)

Set in Timbuktu, Mali, during its 2012 occupation by Islamic extremists, the film tells the story of a feud between a cattle herder and a fisherman that rapidly escalates into violence. The plot mainly serves as a setup to expose the oppressive mood that settles on the town’s citizens as their occupiers impose Islamic sharia law. One standout scene features the town’s youth participating in a soccer match with an imaginary ball since the jihadists have banned sports.

Topics of Discussion
This film is helpful in the way it can expose Western audiences to the ways in which extremists oppress local populations and force people to follow religious ideas under threat of violence. While this film is about Muslims, it can be used to start a conversation about persecuted Christians around the world. Discuss the hypocrisy of the legalistic occupiers who smoke cigarettes in secret and are themselves obsessed with European soccer while imposing a sports ban.

There are scenes of gun violence and an intense scene in which a woman is publicly whipped.

Where to Watch
Timbuktu is available on DVD and Blu-ray and can be streamed on iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, and Amazon.

Max Power was raised in Sub-Saharan Africa as a missionary kid and returned to the US to study technology, art, and film in university. He is now back in Africa serving as a Media Specialist alongside his wife of seventeen years and their two kids.