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Q&A: Ben Asks Davis About Waiting for Superman

Following a screening of "Waiting for Superman," Ben Goldhirsh and Davis Guggenheim discuss filmmaking, good schools and bad schools, and pragmatism.

Last week in Los Angeles, we held a private screening of Waiting for Superman, followed by a discussion between Ben Goldhirsh, GOOD's CEO and co-founder, and Davis Guggenheim, who directed the film. It was the last of our five-part education series, which brought together concerned citizens and education movers and shakers to talk about why education reform is badly needed and what we can all do about it.

For those that couldn't join us in L.A., we wanted to share with you the conversation between Ben and Davis, where they talk about filmmaking, good schools and bad schools, and the audacity of pragmatism.

Ben Goldhirsh: Did you always intend to narrate this film?

Davis Guggenheim: That’s a good question. My father made social justice documentaries and I grew up in a generation where narration was terrible

—it was the voice of God, it was dogmatic. It goes back to my decision to make the film. Participant Media funded An Inconvenient Truth and asked me to make this film and I originally said no, that it was too difficult, that public education was a storytelling quagmire, which it kind of is. After I had said no, the next day I was packing my kids into the minivan and driving them to their great private school. I’m a visual guy and out of the corner of my eye was our local public school and I felt it going by, and the next one, and the next one—there were three public schools. That feeling of driving by really haunted me, that idea that my kids were going to have a great education but that the kids in my own neighborhood were not. The question was: Is it enough that my kids were going to be okay? And struck me that that would be the way in. If you talk about it from an expert point of view, I would get lost, the audience would get lost, but if you told it from a very personal point of view, maybe that gives you a way of talking very directly and with a strong opinion but a very personal opinion. I probably never will narrate another film again but that this film, by necessity, needed to have a personal point of view.

BG: Relative to An Inconvenient Truth, can you speak to the swell of energy that existed then around climate change and how that compares to the energy that we’re all seeing around education and do you think this is the beginning of a kind of education storm happening or is this a window in time?

DG: It did feel like there was this feeling that maybe An Inconvenient Truth was this once in a century moment, that maybe you couldn’t do that again. It’s a different energy and a different swell but it’s definitely a swell. But I’m the last person to judge its breadth and volume. What do you think?

BG: I think you've sharpened the tip of spear that is in front of a whole bunch of weight behind it. For a lot of people, this has been a latent frustration and awareness, which has now been brought to a broader group of people and there’s a real call to action. Are you proud?

DG: The attention is fine, the reviews are fine—meaning when they’re good they’re fine and when they’re not good it’s not fine—but to me it’s about turning it into real energy and real change, and really transforming people’s lives. But I’m still anxious. I don’t want it to be a blip, the fashion of September of 2010 when we all thought about education and all went back to our lives. In America we’ve done that before. The real proudness would come out of hearing real change happening.

BG: As you look back at the film, if you could take what you know now and you were back in the editing room, would you make any amendments?

DG: You have to be careful not to respond to criticism too much—you want to listen and listen to the things that still gnaw at you. But the quick judgement of the film, that we’re pro-charter, bugs me because we tried to be clean and clear, that only one in five are high performing. And there are some things I would do, but on the whole I think it’s working. You have to make a choice when you make a film about who your audience is. Is your audience there to please the experts or to move the experts, who have been thinking about this for a long time, who will debate the nuance 'til you kill it? Or do you make the film for the broad swath of people who worry about it but aren’t engaged? And I don’t think you can make it for both. People who criticized An Inconvenient Truth the most in my world were the environmentalists who said we didn’t go far enough. There’s a lot of that in education, where there’s an industry of people, nonprofits, the press, and editorial pages, that are just there debating the latest thing in a maddening way and you’ll never please them. The idea of this film was how do you bring people who are disengaged to the table. I made this film for them and in that case, I think the film works, or is an experience for that audience.

BG: As you've spent however many years on this issue, do you think that you’ve been able to wrap your head around this or has it gotten more complex?

DG: I think it’s gotten simple, especially in the last couple of months. I think it all boils down to: Are you doing something in your life that affects the life of a kid or is changing the quality of a school or are you not? The truth is that many of us are not. Many of us want to come to a screening and be moved and go home feeling like they learned something. Or they want to go home and say, yeah, but. Surprisingly, when you make a film, only after time passes and the film is done do you learn what you were doing. It’s fascinating and it happens in every movie. A couple of week ago, I finally knew what I was doing. I was drawn to a group of pragmatists—people who were not driven by ideology or by politics, didn’t care if you were a Republican or Democrat, didn’t have the magic bullet or the magic solution. They were pragmastists who were making great schools one at a time. I want people to make more great schools. To me, it's quite simple: I want more great district schools, I want more great charters, I want more great magnet schools, I want more great parochial schools. I don’t care about ideology. It’s much more simple than we make it when we debate it.

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