Davis Guggenheim is the only filmmaker to release three different films that were ranked within the top 100 highest-grossing documentaries of all time. His latest instalment is called Waiting for “Superman” and it does exactly what a documentary is supposed to do – dig deep.
The film analyses the failure of American public education whilst following the progress of several students through the system. For a nation that claimed it owuld leave no child behind, the US continues to do so at an alarming rate. As he follows five promising kids through a system which inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education. In doing so, he discovers “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” all the while methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problem.
Central to the problem, ironically, is the seemingly unsurpassable power of teacher’s unions and their refusal to negotiate the policy of tenure – making teachers practically impossible to fire, even if they are proven to be godawful at their jobs. In the state of New York alone, the problem is thought to cost in excess of $100 million a year.
Waiting for “Superman” won the Audience Award for best documentary at Sundance last year. Moreover, the film in notable for the amount of conservative politicians who openly lauded it, despite its distinctly liberal flavour. Since the UK and the United States are neck-and-neck in the social mobility stakes and the new government in Britain is trying to find a solution, it’s interesting to see what the problem looks like on the other side of the pond: bigger and scarier.