Classroom crusader

Director Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman“ turns the lens on America’s public schools.

Andrew Penkalski

The parties involved may not prefer such a capital description, but it issafe to say that American advocacy documentaries have seen some booming business in the past decade.

Michael MooreâÄôs 2004 examination of the Bush administration, âÄúFahrenheit 9/11,âÄù grossed just under $120 million domestically. By the time Davis GuggenheimâÄôs first documentary feature, âÄúAn Inconvenient Truth,âÄù netted a commendable $50 million, an apparent desire within audiences for issue works had been solidified.

Now with two documentary features under his belt, Guggenheim has shifted the camera towards the palpable cracks in AmericaâÄôs public schools with his new work, âÄúWaiting for Superman.âÄù

The film, in great congruence with the aforementioned pictures, has all the characteristics of contemporary advocacy documentation. Tongue-in-cheek animations enhance the absurd realities of every statistical graph. Anachronistic archival footage highlights the inanity of that American way.

Guggenheim has, however, made a standout film, and he has done so by trudging through some heart-wrenching subject matter with a strikingly personal approach.

 âÄúI imagine youâÄôre feeling pretty heavy right now,âÄù Guggenheim said to the Twin Cities Film Festival attendees who had just been effectively put through the emotional wringer.

The documentaryâÄôs narrative arc, which circles around the familial struggles of five children attempting to succeed in a system more concerned with educator benefits than education, gains said reaction through GuggenheimâÄôs intimate place in the film. It is his narration and his voice coming through the background of the talking-head interviews.

âÄúThe story is so complicated that it needed sort of a personal point of view, so the narrator can ask these deep questions,âÄù Guggenheim said during an interview at MinneapolisâÄô Graves Hotel.

Essentially, he maintains a role in this vision that cannot be ignored âÄî a great contrast from his secondary position in celebrity-scale pieces like âÄúAn Inconvenient TruthâÄù or his recent rock-doc âÄúIt Might Get Loud.âÄù However, Guggenheim maintains that his approach towards the subjects has remained constant.

âÄúThe most essential part is getting very, very personal,âÄù he said, âÄúItâÄôs not a story about Al Gore, the politician. ItâÄôs about a guy who has this incredible truth, and no one will listen to it.âÄù

And this love for his subjects shows in the basic approach to interviews. As Anthony, a fifth-grade student in Washington, D.C., describes the loss of his father, Guggenheim keeps the camera close and the volume quiet. He allows most subtle sighs and hiccups to rise from these individuals during the most affecting moments.

âÄúWhen you meet the kids in this movie you realize they are just like your kids,âÄù Guggenheim said, âÄúWhen you meet their parents, you realize theyâÄôre just like us.âÄù

At the end of the day, GuggenheimâÄôs visible goal and greatest accomplishment is the documentation of the individual. And it is the most notable point of his filmâÄôs impact.

This is no clandestine effort at heartstring-tugging for the sake of a cause either. Guggenheim spends a substantial portion of the film exploring the larger implications of detrimental bureaucracy within the system on various local and federal levels. After all, the expectations of a filmmaker require a greater level of fairness than that of an activist.

âÄúI think where a lot of documentaries fail is when they serve the activist side first,âÄù Guggenheim said. âÄúYouâÄôve got to make it responsibly, and youâÄôve got to make it truthful.âÄù

All fairness in technique aside, Guggenheim welcomes his current role as an advocacy filmmaker.

âÄúThe movie is there to engage people who havenâÄôt been engaged,âÄù he said. âÄúIf the movie can do that piece, then the other pieces become more easy.âÄù

With a work so heavily invested in the figures involved as âÄúWaiting for Superman,âÄù Guggenheim will undoubtedly spur dialogue at even the least affected of family dinner tables.