The Film Frontier: Using Films and Videos in Your National History Day Project

The 2022 National History Day contests resulted in many fascinating projects covering topics ranging from labor and environmental debates to U.S.-China Ping Pong Diplomacy. Now it is time to begin looking ahead to 2023! The 2023 NHD contest theme is Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas and on page 35 of the 2023 NHD Theme Book you’ll find our article “The Film(ed) Frontier: Twentieth-Century History Captured in Motion Pictures” highlighting examples of archival motion picture films available to researchers from the National Archives and Records Administration.

Uniformed African-American members of the Women's Army Corps stand at attention in 1945.
African-American members of the Women’s Army Corps in 1945. The WAC was created as a branch of the U.S. Army during World War II. Still from 111-ADC-2410 (NAID 16214).

For many students, embarking upon archival research may feel like crossing a new frontier, but it’s nothing to be nervous about. Archival films and videos can help bring your NHD topic alive, allowing your audience to engage with and understand historical events in exciting ways. Below you will find some ideas for how historical films may be used in the different NHD contest categories.


Whether or not your documentary focuses on a filmed event, videos downloaded from the National Archives Catalog can help weave a rich tapestry of images for your viewers. If your documentary focuses on frontiers in Civil Rights, you may want to include clips of events like The March in Washington (NAID 49737), but you could also use clips from other 1960s footage to illustrate the America in which the movement took place.


Video clips can help add an extra dimension to your exhibit. A project examining how the U.S. Forest Service charted a new course of preventing, rather than merely reacting to, wildfires could include a clip from Little Smokey (NAID 1849) or other Smokey Bear PSAs (NAID 13458). Still images from archival films and videos may also be used to illustrate your topic.

Tagline from a U.S. Forest Service fire prevention Public Service Announcement. Still from 95.160 (NAID 13458).


You may choose to use a historical film or video as the subject of an NHD paper. You could begin by watching a video like the Forest Service’s 1990 Discovering Alaska’s National Forests: America’s Last Frontier (NAID 6171538). In your primary source research you might explore questions about how Alaska has changed over the last 30 years, debates about land use and natural resources in these frontier forests, and even whether there are people who might object to the “frontier” label. The film itself may also be analyzed to explain how it visually depicts a frontier narrative.


Historical films can be a good source to show you how people dressed, spoke, and carried themselves at different points in the past.  For a performance on women trailblazers in the military and during wartime, you could look at moving images from World War I (NAID 24720), World War II (NAID 16214), the Vietnam era (NAID 4523809), and Desert Storm (NAID 4524847) to learn how uniforms, duties, and expectations of military women have changed over time.


A website is an ideal showcase for a thesis supported by film and video primary sources. Clips and stills may be embedded easily within the body of your site.  A project focused on the development of technology during the Space Race can draw from over 350 video files available online in NARA’s 255-FR Series (NAID 23898397). The films provide visual documentation of preparations and scientific advances that made the Apollo program a success and may be used to illustrate its progress.

NASA’s Apollo program required the development of custom space food, like this crumbless cheese sandwich. Still from 255-FR-4408 (NAID 70177897).

For more National Archives resources, check out our Education Updates blog post “Resources for National History Day 2023: Frontiers in History” and the DocsTeach National History Day website. Keep an eye on the Unwritten Record blog for additional NHD posts throughout the next year!

2 thoughts on “The Film Frontier: Using Films and Videos in Your National History Day Project

  1. Will documents derived from the National Archives, relating to the Central Intelligence Apparatus, require permission to publish or are they authorized for disseminating as declassified materials for the purposes of publication?

    1. If the records you are accessing are declassified, there should be no national security reason to prevent their use in publication. However, you may need to consider the copyright status of the records if they were not created by the United States government itself. Visit for more information on copyright restrictions as they may apply to NARA records.

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