February 20, 2011

As Oscar Approaches: New Momentum for Documentary Films

Oscar night is fast approaching and the Hollywood glitterati are all being fitted in black tie and Valentino for the big night. Even the documentary-film crowd will have to cast off their blue jeans and black turtlenecks for something more glamorous.

And why not? For independent-film producers and nonprofits that make and distribute documentaries, it’s time to celebrate not just the Oscar-nominated films but also a proliferation of new money and attention to extend the reach of nonfiction film.

Just last month, the Ford Foundation announced a new five-year, $50-million effort to help create and distribute documentary films.

The new program, JustFilms, will work with directors and producers to create new works and with nonprofit groups that seek to expand audiences for documentary film. The foundation said it would use documentary films to advance the public’s commitment to solving the tough problems that Ford works on in its grant making—an approach that is increasingly prevalent among grant makers that finance films.

And SnagFilms, a new digital distribution platform that allows Internet users to view documentary film free, announced in January that it had secured $10-million in new financing, which will insure that the service will remain viable. SnagFilms provides documentary filmmakers an outlet for sharing in the revenue generated by Internet viewers who watch films with advertisements interspersed throughout each presentation.

Beyond those reasons to celebrate, this year’s crop of Oscar documentary nominees shows the strength of the art form. The nominees include “Restrepo,” the gripping record of life and death on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan, and “Gasland,” the personal account of a banjo-wielding environmental activist peeling back the deadly secrets of the natural-gas exploration process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Perhaps the leading contender is “Inside Job,” a riveting account of the financial meltdown of 2008, in which Charles Ferguson shows that government regulators, financial-rating agencies, and academic economists were all at fault in permitting and even accelerating the unfolding disaster in banking and finance.

No matter how strong those candidates are, many people in the nonprofit world were surprised by the omission of one documentary: “Waiting for Superman,” the most recent film from Davis Guggenheim, who previously won the Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth,” the film that featured Al Gore’s crusade to curb global warming.

Expectations ran high, with hopes that Mr. Guggenheim would bring the same verve in helping a mass audience understand the complexities of one of society’s most vexing problems. Moreover, the film was produced by Participant Media, which has been an engine of smart and powerful documentary and feature films, including “Food, Inc.,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” and “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Unique among Hollywood studios, Participant has a dedicated team that focuses on promoting social-action campaigns to go along with the films.

The problem with “Waiting for Superman” is that, just like the cartoon Superman, the story is told in broad strokes with no nuance.

In “Waiting for Superman,” teacher unions are evil and school reformers are good; Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is an archvillain and Michelle Rhee, shown when she was the District of Columbia schools chancellor, is the victorious hero.

“Waiting for Superman” certainly has supporters. At the 2010 Sundance Festival, it won the audience award for documentary film. And many foundations and philanthropists undertook ambitious efforts to use the film to get parents and others to advocate for change in the schools.

But the unsettling impression remains, largely because the filmmakers have sought to boil down an extremely complex set of challenges into a simplistic analysis. To those of us who would like to see nonprofits and foundations use documentary films to highlight social problems and solutions, the film was a real letdown.

For anyone looking for a compelling alternative, “The Principal Story” offers a more honest account of the struggles of teaching and learning in American public schools. Viewed through the eyes of two talented and passionate principals, this film chronicles life in and around Chicago’s Nash Elementary School, where 98 percent of students come from low-income households, and Harvard Park Elementary School, in Springfield, Ill., a school with similar demographics.

Financed by the Wallace Foundation, “The Principal Story” depicts the full range of social challenges faced by teachers and administrators in the country’s broken schools, which are often located in depressed neighborhoods full of troubled homes. And it shows how, through hard work and compassion, these principals prevail in raising the performance of their students and their schools. It is at once heartbreaking and uplifting.

“The Principal Story” was produced and directed by the award-winning team of Tod Lending and David Mrazek. The Wallace Foundation did not just commission the film; it also paid for an elaborate package of instructional and marketing materials designed to encourage schools around the country to copy the successes of high-performing principals portrayed in the film.

The contrasts between the films can be seen in scenes that show teachers and principals who are struggling on the job.

In “Waiting for Superman,” one of the most dramatic scenes shows Chancellor Rhee confronting a poorly performing principal and firing him with the cold dispatch of a mafia hit man.

A central premise of her approach is that it ought to be easier to fire teachers and principals who don’t measure up. And by her efficient example, she seems happy to demonstrate how it’s done.

By contrast, in “The Principal Story,” we encounter a teacher who has lost control of her classroom, failing to maintain an environment in which learning is possible.

An effort is made to help the well-meaning teacher improve, but to no avail, and after several months of monitoring a lack of progress, the principal fires the teacher.

Together, the film and the principal show that it is possible in a traditional public school to hold a teacher accountable—and it is possible to do it with concern for the education of children and compassion for teachers who may simply not be up to the job.

The irony of “Waiting for Superman” is that it was publicly released the same week that District of Columbia Mayor Adrian Fenty was voted out of office, in no small part because of his ardent support for Michelle Rhee.

There are good film reviews and bad film reviews, but the will of the electorate is another thing altogether. And the voters of the District of Columbia seem to have offered two thumbs down.

Let’s hope they, and others who care about public education, decide to celebrate the accomplishment of “The Principal Story.”


Vincent Stehle is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, a philanthropic consultant in New York, and a member of the board of directors of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.