Davis Guggenheim Interview: On What Inspired 'Waiting For Superman'

I sat down with Davis Guggenheim recently when he came to Washington, D.C. to promote his new documentary, “Waiting for ‘Superman,” a compelling, revealing look at what’s wrong with education in America (see John Nolte’s review of the film).

For those who’ve seen it, one of the most striking things about the film is that it comes from the man behind “An Inconvenient Truth.” So how did the guy who is known for making a film championed by liberals just make a film that trashes one of the biggest supporters of liberal candidates? That’s what I wanted to find out.

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“I grew up in northwest,” Guggenheim began, speaking of his home in North West D.C. “When I was just a kindergartner, I remember asking my mom, ‘Why do I take a bus across the Potomac into Virginia’” to go to school. His mother’s response: “Because the schools in D.C. are broken.”

And they still are, 40 years later, he pointed out. And not just in D.C., but across the nation. “40 years later I’m driving my kids past two public schools to a private school,” he said. As a supporter of public education, he won’t send his own kids to a public school because he fears they won’t receive a good education. It’s these facts that drove him to make this film.

I asked him about the political differences in the two films, “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for ‘Superman.’” Both stories focus on an issue bogged down by legislation and talking points. But both focus on something else: people.

“I had a lot of great teachers when I was going up,” he said. “My best teacher was my father, who made documentaries. And he always taught me … ‘When people see a movie they invest in people. … They’re not here to hear about an issue. They’re here to invest in people.’” … He passed away just before I did ‘Inconvenient Truth.’ … I had Al Gore’s slide show which was all just charts and graphs and I remember him saying ‘people,’ so [I insisted] that it was about one man’s personal journey.”

Personally, that was the first thing I thought of when I saw “An Inconvenient Truth.” It wasn’t about environmentalism. It was about Al Gore.

Back to Guggenheim: With “Waiting for ‘Superman,’” the motivation was “to remind people what’s at stake” in the education debate – the kids. “These kids and these families have to play bingo. They have to win at a game of bingo to have a good education,” Guggenheim said of the lottery system used to select which applicants will attend charter schools. “It just seems wrong.”

As to the film itself, it really chronicles two stories: the children affected and the system as a whole.

“I made … two films separately and made them work on their own,” he said. “And I didn’t cut them together until the end, until like three weeks before I showed it at Sundance. So the idea is you can watch them separately but they would be more powerful inter-cut together.” And together, they are definitely powerful.

This isn’t the first film on education that Guggenheim has done. His first film, “First Year,” followed teachers during their first year. “All I wanted to do was see what it was like to follow five teachers,” Guggenheim said. “And there was this feeling like they were performing miracles each day, they would reach these kids … [but] I always felt like outside their doors there was this looming monster, there was this system that was working against everybody.”

“I had this amazing experience where I’d be packing up my equipment ... and a principle would come and lean against the door and say, ‘I love that you’re making this movie, but you know we’ll never fix our schools until we deal with some of these other things.’ Things like the bureaucracy and the unions and these very, very onerous contracts. But they would only sort of whisper them to me after the cameras were off – no one wanted to talk about it.”

So Guggenheim did. It’s a powerful film, and I highly recommend it. But in the end, the film’s message is very simple:

“As complicated as we have made [the debate], it boils down to what parents already know: It’s all about great teachers, it’s all about who’s standing in front of the kids every morning. … If you reemphasized everything and really focus on recruiting great teachers, developing great teachers, rewarding great teachers, you know, that would go a very long way to fixing our schools.”

NOTE: This is the better part of this interview, which I shared with Craigh Barboza from MyDVDInsider.com (just so you know the questions aren’t coming from me alone).

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