WAITING FOR SUPERMAN (Dir. Davis Guggenheim, 2010)

AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH director Davis Guggenheim turns his lens on America’s public educational system, and he sure doesn’t like what he sees.

Guggenheim, and producer Lesley Chilcott, explore the vast problems in what they believe is a broken system full of “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes.”

The film intertwines 2 threads – one in which reformers like former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, educators like Geoffrey Canada, and narrator Guggenheim discuss how conditions got so convoluted, and the other follows 5 kids, from 5 different backgrounds and locations, identified only as Anthony, Daisy, Francisco and Emily as they try to get into good charter schools.

It all adds up to a big thesis that blames teacher’s unions, political bickering, conflicted regulations, mixed agendas, outdated cirriculums, and plainly the legions of chronically bad teachers.

In one of the most amusingly informative sequences a previously hidden practice is exposed: “The dance of the lemons”. It involves principals shuffling low performing tenured teachers to other schools since they can’t be fired.

Unfortunately the tropes of so many documentaries – pop song punctuation, ominous piano tinkling, archival film footage (do they really need clips from the ’50s George Reeves Superman TV show to make sense of the film’s title?), and flat animation to illustrate statistics – waters down the effect.

However, there is much to get caught up in here. The kids’ stories (particularly Anthony’s whose father died of a drug overdose) are emotionally compelling – you’ll root for them as they nervously wait on the results of their chosen schools’ lottery draws.

This is another one of those documentaries that earnestly wants to inspire change, and like Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the films of Michael Moore its ending makes a ‘it’s your turn now’ plea to the audience for advocacy.

This film is most likely to cause more debate than actual change, for “Waiting For ‘Superman'” is ultimately a glorified over-reaching pro-teacher, anti-union infomercial, as sincere as it is.

Extras: “Changing the Odds” – a featurette that looks at innovative programs that are changing public education, “Public Education Updates” – Changes which have taken place since the making of the film, “A Conversation with Davis Guggenheim”, another featurette “The Future Is In Our Classrooms”, “The Making of “Shine”: the film’s title track by musician John Legend, deleted scenes, and commentary by Director Davis Guggenheim and Producer Lesley Chilcott.

More later…

Stomaching The Provocative Doc FOOD INC.

FOOD INC. (Dir. Robert Kenner, 2008)

I was sad to miss this film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival earlier this year so I’m glad to see it get distribution and play in my area. As an examination in three parts of American agricultural food production, it’s an eye opening and insightful look into the disturbing conditions under which animals are bred by factories while genetically engineered produce is the grocery store norm. Much of this material is familiar; Richard Linklater’s FAST FOOD NATION (2006), a comedy drama featuring Greg Kinnear and based on Eric Schlosser’s best selling 2000 book, covered the dark side of the fast food industry with a number of the same bullet points made. Schlosser produces and co-narrates FOOD INC. with author and activist Michael Pollan and they give us a much fuller picture than FAST FOOD NATION with the direct concise expert breakdown this subject requires.

Despite many disgusting shots with nauseating descriptions of inhuman practices, this film isn’t about grossing you out. Many folks will avoid it with that fear, but FOOD INC. is overwhelmingly concerned with the politics behind our food choices. Schlosser states: “When you go through the supermarket there is a illusion of diversity. So much of our industrial food turns out to be rearrangements of corn.” That’s just one of many valuable lessons to be found as we see hidden camera footage that was shot by actual employees at the world’s largest slaughterhouse and see cows being fed corn while standing in their own manure at the biggest cattle yards in the country.

Again, a lot of folks want to be the dark about where their food comes from so an audience may be hard to come by for this fierce film. Sure ignorance may be bliss, but an education on the politics of the food we eat that should not be ignored. It’s not an anti-meat movie either – the end credits are filled, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH-style, with suggestions for better healthy eating and “become a vegetarian” isn’t one of the tips so rest assured carnivores! Maybe the question isn’t of an audience, but the ‘right’ audience for this film – a special showing at the Colony Theater last weekend raised over $2,250 for the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle which will bring wholesome food and essential kitchen equipment to needy families in the area. As it continues its theatrical run with other fundraisers and events planned to promote it, it’s sure to build the right audience. And that audience probably won’t be buying a large, buttered popcorn to go with it.

More later…