January 23, 2010

Krinsky at Sundance: 1/23 - Waiting for Superman

Snow on Saturday morning wasn't enough to keep me away from a 9:00 a.m. screening of Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim's new film about American public schools. In a sense, the film is a follow up to The First Year (2001), his first doc, which followed five first year teachers for an entire school year.

At a panel hosted by producers Participant Media later in the week, Guggenheim explained that 10 years after The First Year, he realized that nothing seemed to have changed with the public schools and, "I needed to talk about those uncomfortable truths."

The film does indeed explore controversial territory, with much of the blame for system failure laid on the teachers' unions. But the film also offers hope, in the stories of inspirational teachers and school leaders who are trying to innovate through charter schools and special programs.

Guggenheim essentially weaves two different movies together: the story of a group of kids waiting to find out if they win the charter school lottery, and a more logical film that delves into the complex questions of why the dysfunction in American public schools exists. The interplay between the two makes for compelling movie-watching, as you see the facts and figures play out as real-life consequences in the stories of the children.

There are a few voices missing from the film. There are many incredible, dedicated teachers working in U.S. public schools, and we don't hear their side of the story in this film. Guggenheim also does not delve into issues of peer pressure or apathetic parents. Instead, he's chosen to focus on families who desperately want more, who have dreams, who yearn to make their lives better. Their combination of hope and frustration is palpable, and by the time the film climaxes in the lottery, many a tear was being shed in the theater (including several by yours truly).

This is an important film, but it's also powerful storytelling, and that's why you should see it. Guggenheim said during the panel, "We start making films like this because we want to change a great social injustice. But you can't tell the audience what to do. So instead, you tell them a great story and hopefully, that will lead them to action."