‘Waiting for ‘Superman” Director Davis Guggenheim ‘Goes Deep’ Into Our Nation’s Education System Woes
By Michelle Kung|The Wall Street Journal
Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim says that “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” his documentary about the failures of the American school system that opens in theaters today, was “absolutely the hardest movie [he's] ever directed — emotionally, logistically, and creatively.” And that says quite a bit, considering that his last non-fiction film, the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” was about global warming and centered around a slideshow presented by Nobel laureate Al Gore.
“Everything in education is so loaded; I’ve never experienced this in any other subject,” Guggenheim said in an interview. “Global warning was loaded, but this is so so loaded. The issue has so many elements, from charters and vouchers to funding. There are so many wormholes and politically-charged issues. It took [producer] Lesley [Chilcott] and I a while to figure out how to narrow down our focus.”
Edited down from “hundreds of hundreds” of hours of footage from 70 days of shooting, “Waiting for ‘Superman’” follows five children — Anthony in Washington, D.C., Bianca in Harlem, Daisy from East Los Angeles, Emily in Silicon Valley, and Francisco in the Bronx — as each student is entered into local charter-school lotteries to avoid going to overcrowded public schools with lower success metrics.
Speakeasy spoke with Guggenheim and Chilcott about their film.
Why did you decide to make this film?
Guggenheim: What’s great about documentaries is that they have this role now where you can say something that isn’t being said. With global warming, the mainstream press was just not getting it right; they weren’t telling the story properly. It was Al who figured out how to do it, and it’s the same situation with this subject. I think politicians aren’t speaking as clearly as they could on both sides of the aisle because they have vested interests. Same with the press. I wanted to say these uncomfortable truths that no one wanted to say, because unless we say them, we’ll never fix our schools.
Chilcott: A lot of people are reacting to the fact that for a lot of kids, their chance, their future, their education, all depends on geography and a bingo ball [that determines school lottery choice]. They also react to just how unfair and ironic it is that in a land of choice, we’re left in this situation.
Even though you follow five children, I’m assuming you began with more subjects?
Guggenheim: There were some others. There’s a natural winnowing process as you’re shooting because some families are so busy — not only do they have to get their kids ready for school and make their breakfast, but now, they have to deal with a film crew following them around. Very quickly, we were able to find the families we loved and would follow.
You finished the film the Friday before the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. When did you start?
Chilcott: We started really two years ago. Active production has been about a year and half. And really, Davis started 10 years ago.
The film seems to place a lot of the blame on teachers’ unions.
Guggenheim: I don’t want to get too much into the politics, but in the film, Michelle Rhee says it the best — the system is designed to create harmony among adults at the expense of kids. So the current structure is working for a a lot of districts, but not for their kids and that the source of the dysfunction.
Chilcott: There might be people who are entrenched in certain issues and policies, but we couldn’t find any parent who wouldn’t do everything for their kid and we couldn’t find any teacher that wouldn’t help. it’s just that a lot of them are caught up in this knot that can’t be unraveled. The most inspiring thing is that we now know what to do… but those people that are working inside the system need to come together to figure this out for our kids and put the adult issues on the backburner.
Historically, when did America’s school begin its current descent?
Guggenheim: The very simplistic answer is that our schools were pretty well run until the 1970s, but then all of these different factors started to build in. There’s a scene in the film that’s very powerful for me, where we show how today’s schools are still working the way they were designed 50 years ago. The country’s changed a lot, but our country’s schools — in terms of the way they’re built and designed — have not changed all that much. We don’t have the resources to help them adapt to a modern world.
Given how busy many of your talking heads — such as Bill Gates — are, was it hard to secure their participation?
Guggenheim: Everyone was excited to participate, after they heard our approach and made sure we didn’t have an agenda. With Bill, who is very busy, we talked to his people and said we wanted an interview. They said, “great, how’s 2:45 to 3?,” and we had to explain that our interview are typically two to three hours. But after we explained how we worked with Al Gore and how our films are different – we try to go very keep with people — Bill gave us a lot of time. Our interview was almost three hours, because we went deep.
The Washington Post Weighs In on the Movie
‘Waiting for Superman’ ignores the real problem with schools
I began my life in journalism as an education reporter, which is how I came to be in a particular Washington high school years ago, learning from some young teachers that on a given day only 25 percent of their students showed up. When I later asked the principal about this, she showed me her attendance reports: pretty close to 100 percent. So I don’t need the new and widely acclaimed documentary “Waiting for Superman” to tell me that this nation’s schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess — a monstrous lie. I’ve seen the reports.
But this film — so admirable in its intentions that it has become virtually criticism-proof — not only didn’t enthrall me (as promised) but left me wondering why it was made in the first place. Its overall message that too many schools stink and that the teacher unions with their anachronistic work rules –particularly tenure — are an impediment to education cannot be news to any audience that is interested in this film to begin with. In both Washington and New York, two high-profile school chiefs — Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, respectively — have tenaciously fought to have teachers serve the kids instead of themselves and a bullet-proof form of job security. (Try firing an incompetent teacher.) And in both cities, the unions have retreated from their untenable positions and made some important concessions.
“Waiting for Superman” focuses on five kids, all of them desperately seeking admission to charter schools, which, as we all know, are non-union. These kids can break your heart. They have extremely high adorable quotients, but that alone is not what commends them to cinema verite. It is their parents, mostly single ones. These parents are all over their kids, prodding them to study, doing homework with them, urging them on to do better and better in school. You want these kids to go the school of their choice. They would benefit. It is what they deserve. It is unconscionable of us to fail these children.
But these children are not the problem — or not the major problem. The problem, instead, is off-camera in this movie.
For instance, the Washington fifth grader (Anthony) is one 61 applicants waiting for 24 spaces that will open up in boarding school. He enters a lottery and, in the cloying ending, he finally makes it. But why only 61 applicants? Why hasn’t almost every kid in Washington’s woebegone school system applied? Where are they? The answer is that they probably don’t know anything about the boarding school program because their parents (more likely, parent) are unaware and possibly uninterested. These kids are the major challenge, the major problem and, too often, the major menace. Nothing about them in this film, though. Anyone can teach the five children in this movie. Almost no one can teach the ones not in the movie.