Davis Guggenheim’s documentary about our failing public-education system Waiting for “Superman” (read David Edelstein’s review here, and everything else you could want to know about it here) has been, since its debut at Sundance, a conversation-sparking Oscar front-runner. But it’s beginning to encounter some stumbling blocks on its path to the little, bald, gold man besides heated conversation and disdain from the teacher’s union. First, The New York Review of Books published a long, serious, meticulously argued takedown that accuses the film of being charter-film propaganda. (“Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?” etc.) Then, the New York Times revealed one of the movie’s scenes was restaged.
In the scene in question, Maria, Francisco’s mother, tours the Harlem Success Academy and “looks with perceptible longing at baskets of books and welcoming classrooms, and says ‘Wow’ when told how children struggling with reading, like her first grader, Francisco, receive tutoring.” In the movie it appears that this scene is taking place before the lottery that will determine whether Francisco can attend the school. Instead, it was arranged and filmed by Guggenheim after the lottery had already taken place and its outcome was known.
Guggenheim defended the scene by saying, “In the case of Maria, we met her at the school but the cameras weren’t there, so we asked her to go back and tour the school … And as a filmmaker, I wanted to see her reaction to the school, and her genuine emotion. So that scene is real; her reaction, her talking to kids touring the school, is how she would play it.” While this sort of reenactment is kosher with the academy, the Times still found a number of documentary vets, surely just the first, to say they were bothered by the tactic. Seems Harvey Weinstein, who’s got The Tillman Story in the Oscar race, will have lots to work with here!