Director Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ has set off fiery debates and earned him the scorn of teacher groups across America. But it’s all right with him, if the film leads to the nation getting more serious about saving its public schools.
Chances are you’ve heard about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary Waiting for ‘Superman,’ which opened nationwide in theaters last weekend and has already grossed $1.6 million at the box office (a significant amount for a documentary). Guggenheim’s film has challenged Americans to stand up for children and fix the country’s broken education system. As with his previous film, the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for ‘Superman’ has been the subject of plenty of controversy and debate, and has faced strong opposition (teacher unions) as well as strong support (Oprah!). Guggenheim recently sat down with UrbanFaith to discuss the film and how the church community can get involved in saving our schools.
URBAN FAITH: Since making this film, have you noticed any faith-based initiatives that are getting involved with this issue?
DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: Yeah, the amazing thing about the movie is it speaks to everyone, no matter what his or her faith or political leanings. And the people who see the movie just fall in love with the kids and are inspired by the parents, because they see that every kid deserves a great education. I think faith-based groups see the moral consequences of our schools and that it’s a moral obligation to give every kid a great education.
How do you think the faith community can get more involved in the public education issue?
A lot of the big decisions happen behind closed doors at a negotiating table — the superintendent, a mayor, school board, union members. The seat that is often not filled is the person who’s fighting for the kids. What recently announced her resignation] says in the movie is that the system works for the adults — for harmony amongst adults. The people who get neglected are the kids. I think the power to help the kids can come from faith-based groups — people who can organize and gather and say this is important for our community; the heart of our community is a great school. With that collective power, they can really put a lot of muscle toward making decisions at that table to give every kid a great education.[chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system in Washington, D.C., who
What are your thoughts on the negative response from certain teacher groups and unions?
I think some of the dialogue has gotten a little heated. A lot of that comes from people who haven’t seen the movie or don’t want you to see the movie. When people see the movie, they see that at its heart are these kids who just want a great school. Even though there’s a lot of politics in the movie, the message is really apolitical. It asks the simple question: Why can’t we give every kid a great education? And the kids in my movie don’t care what the school is called, and they don’t care how it gets fixed or who’s to blame. They just want a great school.
Has the response from teachers who have seen the film been positive?
I think the majority of teachers get it. There are so many great teachers out there who are slugging it out every day, and they are already fighting for kids. A lot of things I bring up in the movie, they deal with every single day — the vast bureaucracies, the very strict rules. The majority of teachers welcome the message of the movie.
What challenges did you face while putting this documentary together?
I think the biggest challenge of making this movie has been to get people to believe again — that it’s possible. That sounds really simple, but in many of these neglected neighborhoods there’s this sense of “this is what you get” and “it’s been this way for a long time,” and that maybe it can’t be done. What I think is so inspiring about the message of the movie is that I’m showing — through the stories of Geoffrey Canada [president and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone], the kids’ schools, and these great, inspired reformers — that it actually can be done if we have the political will and the moral will. And the idea of the movie speaking to regular people — mothers and fathers and churches — to say it’s time for us to come together and demand good schools and believe again.
When people walk away from this film, what kind of reaction do you want from them? What kind of actions should they be inspired to take?
Well, the first step is seeing the movie, because it gives you this basic primer on how we’ve gotten to where we’re at. And it really shows you the stakes; you feel what it’s like to want your kid to have a great education or to want to have big dreams. And you feel the consequences when you see Daisy and Anthony [students] in this movie. So that’s the first thing: to really see the movie and feel the stakes. And the next thing you do is act locally. See how you can help your local school. There are a hundred ways to help –simple ways like mentoring and volunteering, and then bigger ways like knowing who your school board member is, and letting your voice be heard, and joining your church or group and saying, let’s use our group power to push leaders to go further and to make decisions that are good for kids.
How has this film changed you?
It’s funny. When you have a little documentary and it starts to do well, you realize that it does well because of these “little angels” all the along the way — members of the press, elected officials, regular people who tell friends to go. The success of a little documentary comes from all these people. I find myself saying at the end of the day to everybody, “God bless you.” I’m not sure what religion I am, but “God bless you” — only because I feel like it really takes a certain kind of shared belief to get this thing done and to really bring people together to do something good. That’s the exciting part about it. That’s how it’s changed me. I’m just one piece of it. I’m a filmmaker, so I’m doing my piece. But everyone along the way is doing his or her piece, from mothers and dads, to teachers, to pastors and politicians.
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Photo of Davis Guggenheim by Joi Ito from Wikipedia.