Keeping The Faith In Hollywood!

Keeping The Faith In Hollywood!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Oscar's Contemporary Documentary Series

I braved gale force Santa Ana winds and flying debris on Wed 11/30 to go to the Linwood Dunn Theater for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (read the Oscars) Contemporary Documentary Series. Tonight was the final installment at the theater for 2011 and they were showing 2 films: The Lottery and Waiting for Superman.

This pairing of 2 films on the subject of the state of education in America seemed fitting and I expected that they would be a good compliment for each other. We were nearly out of luck tough and caught sitting literally in the dark for about 5 minutes after a power outage due to the windy weather. Thankfully, they quickly rebooted everything and the program started as scheduled.

The Lottery:
The Lottery was a poignant and tear jerking documentary that followed the fates of 4 school aged kids (ages 4-6) in the New York City public school system and their parents as they awaited the outcome of the lottery in hopes of gaining entrance into the Harlem Success Academy charter school and the greater hope of improving their ultimate future. It was an enlightening good (concerned parents) verses evil (the teachers union, the bureaucracy and red tape and the notorious dealings of Acorn) with the lives of the children hanging in the balance and I think it's a must see for all Americans.

The film was followed by a Q&A with its writer, editor and director,
Madeliene Sackler
. Sackler was making a living as a film editor when she described how the idea for the doc came to her while watching the lottery on a NYC news cast. She did her research on the subject then she got together $350,000 in funding from grants and various other sources and did the film.

Apparently, it's the law in NYC and many states that a school must hold a lottery whenever that school has more applicants than available entry spots. So Sackler explained that she interviewed about 100 kids and families then selected 7 kids and their families who they then followed with their camera for the many weeks before the lottery.

The personal interviews in this film were amazing and I easily grew attached to the various families like the deaf mother and her 5 year old daughter, the married pro-union couple and their son, the ailing immigrant and his 5 year old son and the mother and her son who looks like Obama's "mini-me". Plus you have all the family, social and financial situations that surround and impact these families.

Of the 7 filmed, only 4 kids and their families made it into the film. I loved that the film showed parents and kids openly praying and thanking God for blessings which I told Sackler that I appreciated during the Q&A. I also loved that the Harlem Success Academy did the lottery almost like a NBA draft with a stage, balloons, cheerleaders (teachers and staff)and plenty of high fives.

You'll have to watch the doc yourself to find out if any of the 4 would win the lottery to the prestigious Harlem Success Academy. But I would suggest you keep a few tissues handy because even Sackler remarks that she can't watch those tearful last scenes of who was in and who was out.

Sackler was very generous with her time and she talked a while with me about doc film making during the brief intermission. I had some questions about the documentary process for a documentary I've been wanting to do since 2004. Sackler gave me her card and e-mail and I plan to follow up with her when I get my stuff in order. Sackler's next documentary effort is about a group of underground theater actors who are trying to overthrow the last European Dictator and I seriously can't wait to see it.

Waiting For Superman:
Speaking about waiting, I've been waiting for an opportunity to see Waiting For Superman since it debuted in 2010 and it didn't disappoint. The film is directed by Davis Gugenheim director of TV shows and films such as The Shield, Alias, 24, ER and Training Day but he is probably most known for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth in released in 2006. Gugenheim comes from a family of award-winning filmmakers, namely his award winining father, Charles Gugenheim who produced and directed many theatrical and political films. Gugenheim is also married to actress, Elisabeth Shue (Leaving Las Vegas, Back To The Future II, Cocktail).

This film followed five kids (age 6-12) and their families as they waited for the results of various lottery for charter schools like Harlem Children Zone, and the KIPP(Knowledge Is Power Program) in NYC, L.A., Houston, D.C.. And we heard more from Geoffrey Canada the innovative Harvard trained educator seen in the Lottery and we learn the heart-breaking story of how the title of the film came about.

We also were introduced to Dave Levine and Mike Feinberg, who are teachers and founders of KIPP. This duo obserevd another teacher then formulated a rapping style of teaching math that inner city kids seem to learn easier. And we met Michelle Rhee, the maverick behind the push for change in D.C. public schools and the bitterly entrenched teachers union.

These 2 films could have been redundant and cancel each other out but they escape that fate only due to the vast powers of "the man of steel"(lol-I just loved those old TV series footage of George Reeves as Superman that they used). Seriously though, Waiting For Superman's tone was very comical and more politically focused than the emotional the Lottery. The film used old news footage to explain the history of the problem and to also poke fun at the "broken system".

The film even showed the U.S. presidents from LBJ, Carter, Reagan, Bush 1, Clinton, Bush 2 as they made promises on education. They also showed the federation of teachers (the teachers union) as a powerful force against the charter schools and of any positive change. While the lottery made me sad but hopeful, this film made me mad and I wanted to do something to help educate these kids properly. I was practically booing the union leader by the end of the film and I decided to check out the L.A. schools featured in the film to see how I can help. I especially think of Daisy who wants to be come a doctor or a vet.

WFS did a good job of explaining in depth most of the issues and players that were brought up in The Lottery. And they showed that it was a nationwide problem and not just in lower income neighborhoods but in rich suburbs as well. It also showed the agony parents have when they realize that schools and teachers can fail on a massive scale.

This film also had a quirky animation reminiscent of School House Rock that explained some jarring statistics about the U.S. educational system like how less than 25% of 8th graders on avg. are reading and math proficient nationwide or like how only 1 in 2500 ever get fired (with loss of their license) v.s. 1 in 57 for doctors and 1 in 79 for lawyers.

Though we spent less time with the kids and families in this film, I still got attached to them, especially Anthony and Daisy, who are wise beyond their years. And I was also please to see kids and parents praying and thanking God in this film, too. An added plus was the musical score which included music by John Legend.

As with the first film, there is tense hope, fears and tears during the lotteries (from names on index cards pulled out of a bowl, to a rolling ball system ala the regular money lottos and the high tech computer picking random numbers). Plus, there was Michelle Rhee's ballsy maneuver of offering 2x the pay to teachers. I won't give away the ending but the overall results are touching. This film is another must see for all Americans.

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