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Take Five: Director Davis Guggenheim says movies can inspire but they can't educate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 7, 2010 - When you've got the Oscar-winning director of a controversial new movie about education on the phone, and you know he spent part of his youth in St. Louis, there's no debate about what your first question should be.

So Davis Guggenheim, director of "Waiting for 'Superman'," where did you go to high school? The answer isn't local, but it is interesting for other reasons.

Guggenheim is the son of Charles Guggenheim, also an Oscar-winning filmmaker who made the documentary that visitors to the Gateway Arch enjoy before they take the tram to the top, "Monument to the Dream." Davis was born in St. Louis in 1963, but the family left for Washington, D.C., five years later, when the elder Guggenheim was recruited to make films for the government.

So the younger Guggenheim went to Sidwell Friends school, which is the same school that Malia and Sasha Obama attend and the alma mater of Chelsea Clinton.

Despite his private school background, Guggenheim says he is a big supporter of public education. Still, when it came time for him and his wife, actress Elizabeth Shue, to choose a school for their children in Venice, Calif., they opted for private education as well, even though Guggenheim says he has to drive past three public schools to get them there.

That experience, which Guggenheim relates toward the start of "Waiting for 'Superman,'" helped prompt his interest in taking a hard look at what is wrong with public schools and what can be done to fix them.

The search took him to schools across the country and to educators like Geoffrey Canada in Harlem, who supplied the title by telling how upset he was when his mother told him that Superman isn't real and he realized no one was coming who had "enough power to save us."

It also led him to find five students -- Anthony, Daisy, Francisco, Bianca and Emily -- whose families wanted them to have a better education than they were getting in their public schools, Some of those schools were considered some of them termed "dropout factories." Guggenheim signed up the students for lotteries for higher-performing charter schools.

"Waiting for 'Superman'" joins other movies about education, including "The Lottery," that focus on how important it is for families to have more options. It also follows earlier films by Guggenheim, "Teach" and "The First Year," which explore why anyone would go into teaching and how difficult the first years of the profession can be.

Guggenheim doesn't pretend to be an education expert. When questions about policy and procedure get too technical, he responds, "That is beyond my expertise." But he clearly has achieved one of his major goals: Sparking a conversation that is long overdue.

With a guest spot on "Oprah," joined by Bill Gates and others, Guggenheim has enjoyed exposure for his film and his thesis that few directors enjoy. It has also raised expectations and objections, particularly about his depiction of teachers unions as the enemy of education reform. Some reviewers have said the film is needlessly one-sided and overlooks positive developments in schools.

Whatever they may think about documentary, the audience for "Waiting for 'Superman'" can do more than just watch the film, wring their hands and head for home. They will also get a $15 gift card to donate to the classroom project of their choice.

Guggenheim spoke to the Beacon as part of a rapid round of publicity in advance of the movie opening nationwide on Friday. 

Time magazine's cover a few weeks ago asked, "Can a movie change education?" Does that kind of expectation weigh on you as the movie opens nationwide?

Guggenheim: I'm very clear-headed about it. There are things a movie can't do. A movie can't educate a kid or negotiate a new contract for a school district, but it can inspire people to start to believe again, and I think that's what happening now. It's selling out theaters, moving people to the point where they say it's time to act.

The film's depiction of teachers unions has been heavily criticized; one review said that Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, comes across as a "foaming satanic beast." Do you think that judgment is fair?

Guggenheim: There has been some pretty sharp language, but most of it has come from people who haven't seen the movie or don't want you to see the movie. I'm a member of a great union, the Directors Guild of America. I am a great believer of unions. We need them to protect our teachers.

But I made a choice in this movie. We're not going to fix schools unless we face some of these taboos. Take tenure. Tenure is something that really needs to be reformed. If I take a little heat for bringing up such a sensitive thing, that's fine. But we have to fix tenure if we're going to have great teachers in the classroom.

This is cutting across all political lines. I believe in getting teachers paid more money, as much money as they can, but they can't be in the way of reform. Schools need serious reform, not incremental reform, and the idea of the movie is to push everyone, all the adults, to go further down that road that is right for kids.

The tragic metaphor in the movie is that there are winners and losers in education. The lottery happens in the movie, but it also happens in where you are born, what district you are in. It shouldn't happen that way in education.

Are you surprised at the impact the movie has had so far, in limited release?

Guggenheim: If you make a movie about public education, you have to wonder whether people are going to say, "Oh, God, another one of these. You have to eat your vegetables that are supposed to be good for you." I try to make movies that make people care. These parents really want good schools for their kids. This is a wake-up call: Now that we know what really works, the best way is to go to a movie, buy a ticket and show the world that you care.

What is exciting is to hear the president talk about it, to hear mayors and superintendents talk about it, and now to hear teachers and parents talk about it. It's not just in New York or Los Angeles but in places like Baltimore and Minneapolis. These kinds of conversations are happening in every city. A lot of issues that were off the table -- tenure, merit pay, a longer school year -- are now on the table and people are talking about them.

The movie becomes the focal point. It becomes a way for everyone to become part of the conversation. It seems like a wave is building around education, that there is a greater sense that the stakes are higher. There is also a sense of possibility that these reforms can work. The movie is a part of that wave and I hope that it will make the wave crest sooner and crest higher. That's the exciting part.

Why did you choose to narrate the movie yourself?

Guggenheim: My father made one of the greatest documentaries of all time, in my opinion, the one that plays at the base of the Arch. It has narration. I thought I would never have narration in my movies. It's very old school, like the oppressive voice of God.

But I thought the best way to tell this story was to personalize it, to tell the audience what I am going through, then broaden it. The decision to send my kids to private school flies in the face of all of my values. I believe in public school. It's a central American notion. But when you are given this choice, you do what you have to for your kids. I'd like to think there is a third choice, that you can do what is right for your kids but fight like hell to make sure all kids have the choice of a good education.

One of the heroes of the film, Michelle Rhee, the superintendent of the Washington, D.C., schools, probably will soon be out of a job because of her boss, the mayor, was voted out of office. What do you think of such a setback for education reform?

Guggenheim: You can never trust city politics. Understanding city politics is beyond my skill set. But I know from filming in Washington that the reforms she was doing were essential and deeply needed. And boy, do I hope that they continue. But I also feel that this reform movement is so inevitable, there is no choice. There is no turning back now.

Class: the Great Divide

The Missouri History Museum is hosting two community events focusing on the nation's public education system and the role of charter schools in shaping a new future:

* "Waiting for Superman," the acclaimed and controversial film that profiles the lack of academic opportunity for five underprivileged schoolchildren will be screened at 1 p.m., Sat., Sept. 17 in the Lee Auditorium.

* A community forum inspired by the film will be held at 7 p.m., Wed., Sept. 21 in the AT&T Foundation multipurpose room.

Both events are free and open to the public. They are part of the museum's series Class: The Great Divide.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.