Five French documentary films to learn French

Ever since Netflix started producing documentaries, people are starting to realize they have existed for nearly a century.

How can watching French documentaries help you in your French learning process?

French documentaries are celebrated for their heart-warming, educational and thought-provoking subject matters, with French filmmakers even putting their life on the line to produce some of them. But fret not – whether you’re passionate about animals, wildlife, politics, serial killers or food, you’re bound to find one (or several) that will pique your interest.

One thing’s for sure: exposing yourself to the sounds of a language (with French songs for instance) is an excellent way to train your ear to new accents and intonations and will tremendously improve your speaking skills.

Without further ado, here are five French documentary films to help you master the commands of French (Warning: these films are in French):

1) Être et Avoir – Nicolas Philibert (2002)

Learn without boundaries thanks to this heart-warming production by director Nicolas Philibert. Set in a remote village in rural France, the documentary film chronicles one year in the life of a teacher educating children aged 4 to 11 in a single-room schoolhouse. Thus is born a close-knit relationship between educator Georges Lopez and his young pupils. This documentary is about more than just a dedicated teacher and his students; it’s about the beauty and complexity of the human being. Then again, most things are.

Être et Avoir was a tremendous success both locally and abroad, grossing a total of $16 million worldwide. The children and their teacher are incredibly endearing, and you might find yourself being on the verge of tears more than once. Here’s a tissue. Yes, it’s been gently used, but so what?

Who can watch it? Whether you’re beginning to learn French or have a more advanced level, this documentary is perfect if you want to expand your vocabulary and work on your pronunciation. The storyline is easy to follow as the vocabulary used by the pupils is simple and straightforward.

Want to improve your vocabulary? Try reading some classic French books.

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2) Relève : Histoire d’une Création – Thierry Demaizière (2015)

If you haven’t seen this documentary film yet, we would strongly suggest you see to it. Relève (referring to a movement in which a ballet dancer rises or elevates) depicts Artistic Director Benjamin Millepied’s tenure at the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet, and focuses on the 39 days running up to the premiere of his first-ever production (a timespan the film counts down in big yellow numbers). More importantly, Millepied’s last name means “millipede”. 

French director and journalist Thierry Demaizière takes us behind the curtains and reveals the close-knit relationship between music, movement and passion and provides an inside look at the many challenges of putting together a ballet masterpiece. Sprained feet and pointy toes await. Do not try this at home.

Who can watch it? Relève is a great point of entry to the French language, and Millepied’s clear-cut narration will help you get accustomed to French intonation and pronunciation in no time. What’s more, cultural references are plentiful in this riveting documentary movie.

3) Demain – Cyril Dion & Mélanie Laurent (2015)

Activist documentary, cinematic gem, informative watch, eco-doc… At Gymglish we don’t like choosing sides, so here’s our take: Demain is a globetrotting documentary more focused on solutions than problems. The film is divided into five sections: energy, democracy, education, economy and agriculture. It provides an insightful look at ways in which organizations and everyday citizens are trying to make the world a better and greener place at a time of environmental catastrophe. From an inspiring public school in Finland to a village fighting against the caste system in India, from a composting project in San Francisco to a British city printing its own money, Demain makes 2020 not quite so bleak as we thought.

Directed by and starring actress and singer Mélanie Laurent and writer Cyril Dion, the documentary movie was critically acclaimed internationally as well as on its home turf and won Best Documentary at the French César Awards. To say this documentary is inspirational would be an understatement, so we won’t say it.

Who can watch it? We would recommend this two-hour documentary to advanced learners of French, as the subject broached are quite complex. However, Mélanie and Cyril’s clear French accents make this film accessible. Don’t forget subtitles. Note: listening to podcasts in French is also a useful way to learn the language.

4) La Marche de l’Empereur – Luc Jacquet (2005)

Stand tall, and do not let the forces of nature torment you or bring you down.” One of the most mind-blowing documentaries out there, La Marche de l’Empereur is one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time, and the second documentary movie most viewed in theaters after Fahrenheit 9/11. This documentary examines the heroic and excruciating journey that emperor penguins endure in order to mate amid subfreezing Antarctic temperatures and violent snowstorms. It’s no wonder the director Luc Jacquet almost froze to death filming them.

Who can watch it? La Marche de l’Empereur is fit for learners of all levels, as the first-person narrative is crystal clear. This documentary can be enjoyed time and time again – if you like penguins and/or mating.

5) Voyages sous les mers 3D – Jean-Jacques & François Mantello (2009)

Released in French cinemas 10 years ago, this whirlwind feature-length movie documentary takes viewers on a mesmerizing voyage through the eyes of a sea turtle – from the Great Barrier Reef to Californian forests and Roca Partida Island, home to thousands of sharks. Some key figures to highlight just how unique this documentary is: 400 operators, over 7 years of filming, 1,500 hours spent underwater and shot in 60 locations all over the world. We guarantee this larger-than-life diving experience will be a memorable one.

Who can watch it? You’re in luck, because none other than Marion Cotillard is the narrator of this documentary film, making this 80-minute tribute to the ocean easy to follow. French is spoken at a slow pace, which is why learners of all levels will come to love it.

After all, learning a language isn’t simply learning a list of words or a set of rules – language is also culture. If this documentary film marathon isn’t enough, why not try a 10-day free trial of our online French course Frantastique? Short, fun and personalized lessons to have you learn French in no time.

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