WARNING: "Waiting for Superman," the new film by David Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth"), might be injurious to public education.
The slick corporate answer to fixing the American public educational system was screened at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, followed by a panel including the director and none other than computer magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates. Producers are hoping to make this film the centerpiece for discussion around critical school issues, in the way "An Inconvenient Truth" tackled global warming. The marketing scheme of this well financed "liberal" documentary appears to be to villainize teachers and unions and place hope in the free market system. The Gates Foundation has earmarked $2 billion to create better high schools - not necessarily public schools.
With carefully selected interviews that reinforce the corporate dream, and music, photography, lighting and editing that are state of the art, the viewer is drawn into a work of art with a powerful agenda. The whole film reeks of free market propaganda, supporting the continuation of alternative charter schools, rigid testing and lotteries that pit families against each other for the few spaces available in these special schools.
It isn't only the attack on teachers and their unions but also the lack of a penetrating analysis of the failed No Child Left Behind program that is destroying public schools by underfunding and regimented testing. The conscious attempt to privatize education, bust unions and create a corporate climate in the classroom isn't addressed. The film urges adults to stop politicizing the debate and think of the children. Then it goes on to discuss incompetent teachers, intransigent unions and failing public schools without mentioning that private and charter schools have also failed while their teachers are not held to the same rigid standards.
The film praises the lottery system that allows every family the opportunity to "compete" for the best alternative schools. These schools are run by the likes of Geoffrey Canada, a dynamic educator who earns over $500,000 yearly to promote alternative schooling. Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty recently lost his bid for re-election partly as a backlash from his appointment of Michelle Rhee as education chancellor. Her ruthless axing of school employees infuriated parents and teachers along with her bravado and insensitivity. But she's the hero in the film while teachers union president Randi Weingarten is seen as an antagonist and impediment to solving the crisis in education.
By contrast, in "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," Diane Ravitch, one of the original architects of No Child Left Behind, directs attention to the fallacies inherent in NCLB and the business community's attempt to privatize education. In clear and concise language, the highly respected Ravitch refutes most of the claims made in the "Superman" movie. Among her solutions to the crisis in education is the suggestion that businessmen get out of the educational "business" and leave decisions on curriculum and schooling to educators who have been trained in the discipline. She reminds us that charter schools were originally conceived to address special need students not to "compete" with public schools. Our schools are definitely in a crisis, and "Waiting for Superman" serves at least one purpose of bringing the debate to the forefront. But walk into the theater informed and knowing that what you see is not all of what you need to see.
It makes one wonder and want to reassess the well received "An Inconvenient Truth," another "liberal" work of art by Guggenheim that brought global warming to daily discourse and lifted Al Gore to sainthood. The plan to spend $250 billion for a hundred years to lower the global temperature just a fraction of one degree is what prompted author and political scientist Bjorn Lomborg to write "The Skeptical Environmentalist." Quickly becoming the devil incarnate, Lomborg's views were reviled and rejected. However, the new documentary "Cool It!" by Ondi Timoner, twice winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, offers Lomborg a chance to present his theories with clarity and reasoned debate. The young and charismatic Danish scientist and former member of Greenpeace, who bicycles to meetings, comes across as a committed activist searching for solutions to the most serious world problems. Although he accepts the need to address global warming, Lomborg's approach has been to offer environmental and economic cost/benefit analyses and provide an alternative list of priorities that also include the urgent need to address HIV/AIDS, malaria, world hunger and poverty. His work with the Environmental Assessment Institute has supported research for alternative energy and the film offers several solutions to global warming, one of them being the splitting of H2O water molecules that create energy and oxygen to counteract the carbon buildup in the air.
Another popular energy alternative presented in the film is the great wind turbines we see placed in the deserts and mountains across the country. However, in another of the great documentaries presented in Toronto, we see residents in a small upstate New York town fighting the placement of these giant intruders in their pristine countryside. We see the other side of the story in the new film "Windfall," by Laura Israel. Fighting the local town council headed by one of the farmers who sold his land to a wind turbine company, the activists present the pitfalls of the new technology. Produced by large corporations who take advantage of farmers suffering form the economic downturn, these windmills create tremendous noise, shadows and safety issues when placed close to homes and farms. The film records yet another campaign by committed activists against abusive corporate power, and duplicitous local officials.
And one more powerful example of people rising up against corporate power is beautifully shown in the new Irish documentary "The Pipe," which chronicles the attempt by Shell Oil to run a pipe overland through the small town of Rossport off Ireland's west coast. Local farmers and fishermen put up a strong resistance to the mighty company, with dramatic scenes of small fishing trollers nudging giant drilling tankers. Farmers were willing to be arrested to protect their land from the dangers of the high-pressure gas pipes that were scheduled to run through their fields without their consent. The feistiness and determination of these small town folks are an inspiration to activists around the world, and the story is dramatically told in this wonderful documentary. Whether they succeed or not is for you to find out when you go out and support great activist films like this one.