Friday, November 05, 2010




In the Schools

November 2, 2010, 4:09 pm - One of the many affecting scenes in the documentary “Waiting for Superman” shows a mother on a personal tour of a high-performing Harlem charter school she wants her son to attend. She looks with perceptible longing at baskets of books and welcoming classrooms, and says “Wow” when told how children struggling with reading, like her first grader, Francisco, receive tutoring.

“It’s two different worlds,” the mother, Maria, tells the filmmaker in an interview interspersed with scenes of the tour, comparing it with her son’s Bronx public school. “I don’t care if we have to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning in order to get there at 7:45, then that’s what we will do.”

But there is something unsaid about the scene. Though the film makes it look as if Maria’s tour was a real event that occurred before the school held its admissions lottery, it was actually set up by the filmmaker after her son lost. By the time she sees the classrooms, in other words, she already knows Francisco will not be going there.


And the school, Harlem Success Academy, generally holds group information sessions for prospective parents, not personalized tours, like the one Maria is shown taking.

Davis Guggenheim, the director of the film, acknowledged that he had made the decision to set up the tour because his cameras, which had to shoot characters in multiple cities, had not been there during the information session. He defended the scene as still being true to Maria and her desire to attend the school.

“In the case of Maria, we met her at the school but the cameras weren’t there, so we asked her to go back and tour the school,” Mr. Guggenheim said. “And as a filmmaker, I wanted to see her reaction to the school, and her genuine emotion. So that scene is real; her reaction, her talking to kids touring the school, is how she would play it.”

Re-enactment and reordering has been part of documentary film-making since its start, and the Academy Awards for documentary film explicitly allow it. In fact, said Jonathan Kahana, a scholar of documentary film at New York University, the history of documentary is very much a history of re-enactment, “with blips, here and there, of something that we think of as vérité.”

That said, he and four other film experts and filmmakers interviewed said they were uncomfortable with the way Mr. Guggenheim inserted the scene, because there is no signal to viewers that it is anything but a real event, and because Maria’s emotional mindset is taken out of context.

Patricia Aufderheide, the director of the Center for Social Media at American University, did a study in which she and other scholars interviewed 45 documentary filmmakers about their ethical approach. “Documentarians firmly believe that altering chronology in itself is not a betrayal of a good faith relationship with an audience,” Ms. Aufderheide said. “But altering chronology when it fundamentally alters the interpretation of what happened, that’s when you get an ethical breach.”

“In this case, it does affect the interpretation of what happened, because you believe that she is still hopeful,” she added. “It represents her in being in one set of expectations when she was actually in another set of expectations.”

For Gordon Quinn, who produced “Hoop Dreams” and other films, the main concern was that it led viewers to  misinterpret the emotions that Maria would be feeling in that moment. It was, he believed, a wasted opportunity — why not show the scene in the correct order, as the sign of someone seeing what she will not have?

“It’s like you think you are looking at someone responding to the future, and in fact, the emotion has to do with their disappointment, and that’s a very different thing,” he said.

And even though the staging of the scene appears to be a “minor and not a major sin,” and being troubled by it remains “a judgment call,” Ms. Aufderheide noted, knowing that scene was shot after the lottery “makes a difference to you as a viewer.”

“You feel a minor twinge of betrayal,” she said. “And that leads me to a sense of distrust about more stuff, and we never want the viewer to have that reaction; you want the viewer to trust you.”

The film follows five students through charter school lotteries as their parents seek better options for them than their zoned public schools. In the process, the film argues that there is a crisis in American education, and suggests general solutions, like better teaching, less bureaucracy and more class time.

The movie has been criticized for other oversights, including its narrowness in representing only great charter schools, not great traditional public schools, and its flawed or misleading use of some educational statistics, which wash over viewers quickly, accompanied by child-friendly animation, with tiny writing on the corner of the screen indicating its source.

Though City Room did not examine many of the statistics, the few we looked at raised questions. Take, for example, the way the film portrays national reading and math scores.

The film correctly states that the goal of No Child Left Behind is for all students to reach proficiency by 2014. But those proficiency levels will be based on state scores, which are generally higher, not national scores, as the film portrays. It also appears to misinterpret the national eighth-grade reading scores.

“When eighth graders across the country were tested for reading, most scored between 20 and 35 percent of grade level,” the film states. While its not clear what that statistic refers to, it may be referring to the fact that 30 percent of students nationally tested proficient or better on the exam, a different issue. In addition, while there is no exact grade-level equivalent to proficient on the national exam, proficiency is much more like getting an A or B than barely passing, said one critic, Diane Ravitch, who served on the exam’s governing board.

The statistic about Harlem Children’s Zone schools also appears to be misleading. “In Geoff Canada’s program, there are more than 8,000 students, 9 out of 10 are proficient in math and on track to go to a four year college.” While the zone does provide some kind of service — after-school programs, teaching assistants, pre-school — to 8,000 children in a 97-block radius, the statistic appears to refer to the 1,200 or so students who are in the zone’s two charter schools. The district as a whole is still well below average on state proficiency exams.

Mr. Guggenheim acknowledged that “on rare occasions” his team shot things out of chronological order. “We try not to do it,” he said. Asked if any other scenes were shot out of sequence to the extent that Maria’s tour was, he said, “None that I can think of.”

“I wouldn’t have had her tour the school if she wouldn’t have toured the school anyway,” he added. “She also has a younger son, Jose Luis, who she wants to go as well, so she was happy to tour it. The litmus test for me is saying, is the person we are following, is that scene genuine and real? And you can see her eyes, the reaction to the school.”


Waiting for Superman's Staged Scene

Amanda M. Fairbanks

Amanda M. Fairbanks

Education Editor | Good |


Waiting for Superman and its director, Davis Guggenheim, are currently embroiled in a discussion about whether or not the staging of a scene purposely misled its audience.

November 3, 2010 • 12:30 pm PDT \ The scene occurs near the end of the film when Maria, Francisco's mother, (both are pictured above) tours the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school whose long waiting list requires that she enter her son into a lottery so that he might attend. Wandering through its hallways, she remarks: "I don't care if we have to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning in order to get there by 7:45, then that's what we're going to do."

Today's New York Times reveals that when the scene was actually filmed, the lottery had already taken place and Maria knew that Francisco hadn't made the cut, a re-creation that Guggenheim defended since his cameras hadn't been able to accompany her the first time around. His response:

“In the case of Maria, we met her at the school but the cameras weren’t there, so we asked her to go back and tour the school. And as a filmmaker, I wanted to see her reaction to the school, and her genuine emotion. So that scene is real; her reaction, her talking to kids touring the school, is how she would play it.”

Recently, A.O. Scott recently explored the changing landscape of documentaries, by asking:

How much voice-over? How much vérité? To re-enact or not? — have a way of opening thorny ethical and philosophical problems. Is the documentarian’s job to show stuff happening or to listen to people talking? To disclose, faithfully and without overt artifice, the way the world is, or to try to explain why it is that way?

Scott argues that as a documentary, Waiting for Superman falls into yet another category by virtue of compelling its viewers at the end of the film to do something, to act upon the injustice of failing schools. "But it is only if they are movies first, attentive to the integrity of their stories, the cogency of their images and the coherence of their ideas, that they can hope to be anything else."

Granted, in some ways it's a minor betrayal of trust—an ethical lapse in service of compelling storytelling. But does it make you lose faith in Guggenheim's role as narrator? And do we expect documentarians in general to be more explicit about the re-enactment or re-ordering of a scene?

Image via Waiting for Superman.

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