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Far Away, So Close

Two new documentaries reveal the uncanny similarities between the problems plaguing schools Kenya and the United...

Two new documentaries reveal the uncanny similarities between the problems plaguing schools Kenya and the United States.

A new Sundance was promised in 2010, as festival founder Robert Redford banned gifting-suite regular Paris Hilton from Park City, and longtime festival director Geoffrey Gilmore was replaced by an equally longtime festival staffer, John Cooper. Some updates worked-like a new showcase of low-budget films called "Next"-while others did not. Hilton, resilient as ever, still showed.Sundance docs often appear in thematic twos-like this year's Restrepo and The Pat Tillman Story, both of which examined the war in Afghanistan. But the parallels between two films about education were staggering. Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim's follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth, is a blistering, energizing, nothing-short-of-inspiring attack on the state of public schools in America. It is especially critical of teachers unions, which Guggenheim shows as blocking efforts to improve teacher quality through merit pay or changes in the tenure system. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten isn't shown in a black hat astride a broom, but the intimation is hard to miss.Jennifer Arnold's A Small Act, meanwhile, is a quieter story about the Hilde Back Foundation, a Kenyan group that sponsors poor students for secondary schooling. The foundation was created by Hilde Back's first beneficiary, Chris Mburu. Now a pensioner living in Vasteras, Sweden, Back paid $15 a month, decades ago, to cover Mburu's school fees. Mburu is now a human rights lawyer for the United Nations.Both films highlight the high-stakes competition that families endure to get their kids a better education. Guggenheim's kids are put through the psychological warfare of charter-school lotteries, while the fate of the Kenyan children is decided by the foundation. Competition in both cases is fierce.Most startling is what is revealed when you see the films in concert. The similarities between the kids' experiences in Manhattan and the Kenyan village of Mitahato-their anxiety, their tears, their futures held captive by forces beyond their control-is impossible to overlook. The resources available to the American students are unquestionably superior to what we see in A Small Act. Still, parents and children in both systems evince such an overwhelming sense that potential is being lost-whether to a squandering of available resources or to a lack of them in the first place. Curiously, A Small Act is the more hopeful film: The keen sense of disbelief haunting Waiting for Superman-that this is happening here-denies it. Hope, Guggenheim seems to say, risks being a poor substitute for the action.Paramount Vantage acquired Waiting for Superman at the festival; A Small Act will air on HBO this summer.Guest blogger Diane Vadino is writing a book about driving from London to Mongolia. She can be found at twitter/bunnyshop.Image from Waiting for Superman.

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