In recent years, watching movies, TV series and TED talks has become a popular and fun way to work on language skills. But there’s another type of visual learning that can help: documentaries. Documentaries provide information on a specific topic, so it’s a great way to learn specialized vocabulary. It’s also useful to watch a French documentary based on your interests – for example, a French history documentary – because it’s much easier to learn elements of language when you’re passionate about the topic. We’ve made a list of the five best French documentaries you should watch by category. Grab your popcorn and get going!
- Nature – La Marche de l’Empereur (March of the Penguins), 2005
- Education – Être et avoir (To be and to have), 2002
- Food – Chef’s Table: France, 2016
- Politics – Emmanuel Macron: les coulisses d’une victoire (Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise), 2017
- Environment – Demain (Tomorrow), 2015
1. Nature – La Marche de l’Empereur (March of the Penguins), 2005
We’d like to start with this nature documentary because not only did it win the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, but it is also the second highest-grossing documentary in the world. French director Luc Jacquet and his team spent over a year filming and preparing this remarkable French documentary.
It’s about emperor penguins in Antarctica and their annual journey inland from the ocean to breed. Once a chick is born, the parents must make arduous journeys to find food and help them survive.
This is a great French documentary for all learners because it is very clear and easy to follow. Like many nature documentaries, the visuals lead the show, while the narration provides clear and simple commentary about what you’re watching. If you want an extra challenge, try watching this documentary without subtitles.
2. Education – Être et avoir (To be and to have), 2002
This beautiful 2002 French documentary is filmed in a rural school in France and focuses on the relationship between a dedicated teacher, Georges Lopez, and his students, ranging from 4 to 11 years old. The town is so small, Lopez is in charge of educating all the children. This touching documentary is simply filmed, with no voice-off or commentary: It’s simple scenes between the teacher, students and the families.
Any French learner can give this documentary a go. Many scenes include children who speak with simple vocabulary, so even beginners will be able to practice their listening skills, with or without subtitles.
3. Food – Chef’s Table: France, 2016
French food is renowned around the world so we had to include a French documentary about food. Chef’s Table is a very popular Netflix documentary series and Chef’s Table: France is one of the best French documentaries on Netflix. Each episode is about a successful French chef and dives into their personal stories and food inspiration and influences.
There is so much covered in these episodes, from foodie vocabulary to regional accents. Plus, thanks to Netflix’s great system, there are subtitles available in both English and French so even if you get stuck on a word, you can easily and quickly figure it out.
4. Politics – Emmanuel Macron: les coulisses d’une victoire (Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise), 2017
In 2017, Emmanuel Macron made history by becoming the youngest president of France at 39 years old. During the campaign, the eyes of the world were on the country because his opponent was far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. This French documentary goes behind the scenes of his campaign and follows his incredible rise to becoming President.
We would definitely recommend this documentary for more advanced French learners. Many of the behind-the-scenes involve his political team so you need a high level of French to understand what’s going on. It’s a fantastic documentary for learning French political vocabulary, and is a great way to expand your political knowledge of France.
5. Environment – Demain (Tomorrow), 2015
Nowadays, the environment is a controversial and tricky subject to discuss, making it difficult for many people to talk about. However, the French documentary Demain is a wonderful and optimistic take on how to find and use solutions to tackle environmental and social changes.
The documentary is filmed in France and is divided into five parts: Agriculture, energy, economy, democracy and education. This is ideal for French learners because you can focus on one chapter of vocabulary at a time. It’s also a fantastic and uplifting look at the future, as opposed to the many pessimistic and disheartening environmental documentaries available.
Knowledge is power
While we have listed the best French documentaries, there are hundreds of other documentaries that cover different subjects. You’ll not only learn more about the French culture and language, but you’ll also improve your French language skills – what’s not to love?
Clara Avrillier is a writer, linguist and content manager living in the South of France. She loves getting out in nature, doing sport, reading and playing music. She also works with expats looking to move to France. Connect with her on LinkedIn.