Davis Guggenheim’s latest documentary Waiting for “Superman” is a slick, affecting film about the education crisis in America. Guggenheim follows a number of young students from particularly impoverished areas as their parents struggle to pay school fees and put their hopes and dreams into the barbaric – but necessary – lottery system (in which kids are selected at random for the best public institutions). This exhausting human trial is contrasted with interviews with some of the most charismatic (and controversial) people in the system: Michelle Rhee, notorious Washington D.C. Public Schools chancellor; Geoffrey Canada, former teacher, current activist and president of the Harlem Children’s Zone in Harlem; and Randi Weingarten, union president and one of Guggenheim’s scapegoats for the inherent issues of the education system.
So, as you can see, Waiting for “Superman” has the raw materials for a great documentary: timely topic, engaging protagonists and high-ranking interview subjects. But individually great elements do not always combine for a masterpiece (see: Ocean’s Thirteen, Date Night, The Expendables etc.). Waiting for “Superman” – although good – is unable to find the right balance between human interest story and detached “just the facts ma’am” objectivity. Of course, there is no such thing as objectivity in a documentary, and frankly, I don’t want it. A director has a vision and a point of view, and that is what I want to see; not a bunch of second guessing and weak arguments. We’re smart enough to view these films with a critical eye and to debate it in our own time (like, right here and now!). But Guggenheim keeps trying to push a number of solutions– too-easy solutions – instead of embracing the labyrinthine desperation of the situation at hand.
We witness these young kids (all eager to learn) and their parents and guardians (who make countless sacrifices to give their children what they want) endure heartbreak after heartbreak. These scenes are tough to watch, and will likely bring a tear to your eye. But Guggenheim underscores it with swelling strings, adding a saccharine sentimentally that does a disservice to his subjects, rather than complement them. He has a history in narrative, fictional filmmaking, and he seems intent on bringing that style to this true tale too. Guggenheim briefly references his debut documentary The First Year, in which he followed five novice teachers for 12 months. It offered no immediate solutions and no overwrought melodrama; it put the problems of the education system into perspective and remained just as effective. Here however, he condescends to include a ‘what to do now’ fact sheet over the end credits (a recent, unpleasant trend in documentaries). I have no problem with documentarians stepping in and making themselves the center of the film (the great GasLand did just that), but I yearn for the days when a documentary could stand on its own as a statement. The film was the thing, and audiences could do with the information what they please. When Guggenheim begins discussing the charter school system – where teachers use unorthodox methods such as singing and rapping to teach – he frames it like an advertorial. Whether it’s a justified endorsement or not, the execution evokes that of a paid advertisement. The same thing happens when he turns the unions into ‘the big bad’. Sure, they may be instrumental in the dismantling of the education system, but surely the government deserves an equal amount of blame. Why aren’t they similarly positioned as villains?
I wish Guggenheim had – as he did in The First Year – stepped back, followed these families, and let their stories speak for themselves. I guarantee the end result would have been far more moving and revolution-inciting than a half-baked, ultra-slick Hollywood polemic. Still, as I said earlier, the raw materials are there, and it would take a heart of stone to not sympathise with the subjects, swelling strings playing over the background or not.
Waiting for Superman is now showing across Australia.