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Waiting For Superman

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Waiting For Superman
Released on Friday, Nov 26 2010

Davis Guggenheim spun an Al Gore PowerPoint presentation into 2006's Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and he strikes gold again with his latest film Waiting For Superman. Switching from the broad scope of environmental armageddon, he zeroes in on America's antiquated public school system and the children whose destinies are shaped by something as random as pulling a name out of a hat. The title comes from one of the film's most fascinating characters Geoffrey Canada, who runs a highly successful charter school in Harlem's roughest area. Canada recalls watching an episode of the George Reeves Superman show and wondering if the hero would come and save him and his schoolmates - two hilariously dated clips of the Man of Steel bookend the picture.

Waiting For Superman is at times powerful, often tragic and - at the very end - incredibly moving. Guggenheim displays his expert documentarian chops by unravelling the complexities of the US's school system quickly and concisely. His interest lies not in making a political treatise, but instead showing the ripple effect that sub-par schooling has on kids and debunking the notion that social class has a direct influence on dropout rates or getting college grades. Canada's Harlem Children's Zone achieves better results than a school in affluent Silicon Valley, where "tracking" puts average students in less-demanding classes. The Valley's favourite son Bill Gates even pops up to lament the education system and voice his concerns about having to bring in qualified workers from abroad.

The teachers' union doesn't come out of Superman with flying colours. The issue of tenure, where teachers who serve two years become almost impossible to dismiss, is a stumbling block for progress and brilliantly illustrated with a Simpsons clip. The formidable Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Columbia's Public Schools system, proposes performance-based pay for those willing to sacrifice tenure. The union doesn't even take it to a vote.

Guggenheim's camera also captures the inside of a New York holding faculty, where teachers awaiting disciplinary charges spend all day playing cards and twiddling their thumbs while they pick up a full salary. Superman makes a strong point about cash being poured down "sinkholes" while bureaucracy and red tape mean that it's impossible to reform the system. Guggenheim is ever the optimist, though, highlighting the strides made by crusaders like Rhee and Canada and showing that there are people striving to make a difference.

The parents of the five children at the centre of Superman - Anthony, Daisy, Emily, Francisco and Bianca - are all hoping to send their kids off to college, but with low-incomes their fate rests in a lottery system that selects kids at random to send to the best schools. It's a bizarre bingo event and provides Guggenheim's film with an emotional punch in the finale as kids and parents are left on tenterhooks. It's a cruel and triumphant sequence, and one of many reasons why Waiting For Superman is essential viewing.


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