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Interview: Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting for Superman

Out with the Old School
By TOM MEEK  |  October 4, 2010

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Davis Guggenheim has always been a man on a mission, shining his camera on matters that impact not only his personal universe, but the entire country and globe as well. He won an Academy Award for An Inconvenient Truth, the red alert about the state of the planet’s health as conveyed by Al Gore’s tireless environmental soldiering and a battery of convincing charts. And while Guggenheim did take a time-out to indulge himself with the frivolously fun rock documentary It Might Get Loud, the filmmaker never stops contemplating the issues that affect the future quality of life for mankind.

READ:"Waiting for Superman"review, by Tom Meek

READ: "As 'Superman' debuts, risks and rewards of school reform made plain," by Tom Meek

The subtext of his documentaries is that Guggenheim (who’s married to actress Elisabeth Shue) wants a better world for his children, ages 12, 9, and 4. And while global warming is a clear concern for the next generation, seemingly nothing can compete with the “crisis”-level blight that has eaten through the country’s public-school system. Terms like “academic sinkhole” and “dropout factories” abound in Guggenheim’s latest, Waiting for Superman.

For the film, Guggenheim spent two years following families with school-age children in L.A., D.C., and New York, and the committed reformers who promise a better education despite overwhelming odds. I caught up with Guggenheim at the Liberty Hotel.

In your film, you touch on the fact that parents will do the right thing by their kids first and foremost. You have children who you send to private school, so by doing that, are you not perpetuating the situation?

You’re right, and I am part of the problem, and I start the film that way. I take my kids to private school, betraying the ideals I thought I lived by. And that’s what I wanted to do in the film by calling out the groups that need to do more for education, and I start with myself. When I take my kids out of public school, I am taking my influence and my concerns out. But there’s an important thing here to unpack: parents are going to continue to behave this way, because that’s what parents do. They will find the best school for their kids. Some will find private school, some will drive two hours, some will pretend they live somewhere where they don’t live, and some will move. They will go to great expense.

The point is, people move in self-interested ways, but now we have to move beyond that to have a commitment for great schools for everybody. The other people I blame are centralized bureaucracy, the Democratic Party and teacher unions. All these entities operate in self-interest. Politicians need to raise money to get elected. The Democratic Party has lost sight of what it should be doing, which is defending the disadvantaged. That’s their base platform, and because of their cozy relationship with union money, I think they’ve moved off from their principles. In making the movie, I had to be tough on all the adults. It’s what had to be done if we’re going to actually help kids. Acting in self-interest is really what is hurting our schools. We need to make the schools for kids and not about the adults running them.

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