Whether or not you’ve seen Waiting For Superman, you’ve probably heard the buzz. David Guggenheim, the man behind An Inconvenient Truth, has pushed the hot button again, this time tackling the immense and sensitive topic of education in the United States. As the film’s title suggests, directing this documentary was an undertaking of super-human proportions.
So whose feet has he stepped on this time? In Waiting for Superman, Guggenheim follows seven American students who lack educational options in their local public schools—not taking this sitting down, they’re entering lotteries for charter schools, studying at home, seeing tutors, etc. Guggenheim also examines schools that are successful (like the Harlem Children’s Zone, and the Knowledge is Power Program) and tries to understand why the techniques of these schools can’t be used all over the country.
The controversy comes when Guggenheim has to place blame. Why aren’t all public schools able to maintain good teachers, techniques, and resources? His answer: The system is broken. And the system, unfortunately, consists of people—like superintendents, principals, and members of teachers’ unions—who are complaining that Guggenheim’s film unfairly villainizes them.
So what does Guggenheim have to say for himself? On a recent stop in the Twin Cities, he met with Minnesota Monthly, and we came armed with questions: Why didn’t you criticize the federal government more heavily? Why not spend more time on the overall approach to education in all public schools, not just the poorest ones? With your swelling music, expensive animations, and wide-eyed children, aren’t you just tugging at our heart strings, without offering a solution?
But as soon as we entered the weirdly ornate, windowless room on the third floor of the Graves Hotel (like a mafia meeting-room from the future), and laid eyes upon the great and mighty Guggenheim, he seemed more like the man behind the curtain than someone claiming to be a wizard. “I feel a little out of place in here,” was the first thing out of his mouth. “It’s like a Doctor Evil room or something.” He offered coffee and water, smiling shyly like a kid on a first date.
“Your production notes say that the film came together quickly,” we asked. “Did you leave anything out?” Guggenheim nodded thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I’d say we got done quickly,” he said. “I had originally said no to [the project], because I thought it was impossible. But then I had the breakthrough of telling it from a personal point of view.” He paused, ran his hand through his neck-length hair. “Look, I’m learning stuff everyday about public education, and I think there was no way to avoid the controversy. But my strong feeling was that there are these taboos about schools, and if we don’t talk about it, we’re never gonna fix them. So talk to me about the unions, about the political parties that take money. Talk about people like me who send their kids to private schools. We’re never gonna fix our schools unless we do.”
Guggenheim’s humble “I don’t have all the answers” attitude started to feel like it tied up the loose ends that the film left dangling. When asked about the issue of federal funding for education, he agreed that he was equally as baffled as a viewer might be by the relatively small amount, compared to other federal priorities. “It’s a riddle. People don’t want to pay more taxes for this,” he said. “It’s not a priority, and that’s the problem. You need two things: You need to fix the system, and you need more money.” His goal, he reiterated, was just to get the conversation started.
So has he done it? Is the sprawling, convoluted issue of education in America finally up for discussion? Guggenheim says yes. “[New York] Mayor Bloomberg recently gave a speech,” he said hopefully. “The first thing he mentioned was Waiting for Superman, the second thing was how they’re going to reform [teacher] tenure in New York,” a key component of the film’s recommendations. “President Obama…found it ‘powerful,’ and talked about how we need more school days,” Guggenheim continued, “which I think is a key piece of the film.”
Additionally, Guggenheim has spearheaded a major “action” campaign on his website, where viewers can earn coupons to help local teachers raise money for projects, engage in localized fundraising efforts, and access information about how to become a mentor, a volunteer, even a public school teacher. “That’s the key role of the movie—to motivate,” Guggenheim said. “I think of movies as stories first, to show the stakes. Once you’re motivated, there’s a whole host of things to do.”
As he ushered us out of the Dr. Evil room, Guggenheim smiled and shook hands heartily, seeming almost grateful for the tough questions. Like the subjects of Waiting for Superman, he’s not purporting to have the answers, and he’s not naive enough to think that the United States will solve its education problems in one fell swoop. In spite of his Oscar and accolades, Guggenheim seems to know as well as anyone that he’s not Superman. But he’s tired of waiting.