I have to admit. I had never really been a big fan of documentaries. Until recently, I had only seen two of them in the theater – Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom – and I can’t remember ever renting one.
That all changed when I reconnected with Barry, my friend from college who turned out to be a cinema-phile extraordinaire. Not only would he recommend all different kinds of films for me to watch, he would challenge me to drop my pre-existing opinions, loosen up my prejudices and watch his suggestions with fresh and non-judgmental eyes.
This proved daunting for me at first, especially when I would watch movies as Swept Away, Requiem for a Dream, American Beauty or Deer Hunter – films that I had actively avoided in the past, fearful of the violence and degradation I thought that I would encounter. But Barry urged me to view each film on its own terms and see each character through the lens of his or her experiences – not mine. Fond of saying, “What one man can do, any man can,” he showed me how to watch movies as windows into the deepest recesses of the human heart, teaching me gently to shove my subjective frameworks aside.
I had a much easier time entering into documentaries on their own terms than feature films. There were dozens of documentaries on his list and as I started to watch them one by one, I became enamored with the genre and would eagerly ask for more.
In the best documentaries, I found myself taken along on a quest with the filmmakers.
Like true inquiries, the documentaries would begin with an open ended question that did not have an easy answer and often lead to other questions. Some tried to explain a life. Who was Ray Johnson? asked How to Draw a Bunny. Or what motivated Phillipe Petit in Man on Wire. Others probed deep and painful questions like what really happened in Arnold Friedman’s basement?
The true crime documentaries, like Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills , The Thin Blue Line and my all time favorite in this genre, Talhotblond ( a MUST SEE!!!) make us question our own sense of reality and ask whether it is even possible for humans to ever know “the truth.”
Then there are the ones that border on propaganda — documentaries that arrange information in a such a compelling manner as to persuade the viewers to believe a particular idea, demand justice and/or to take some kind of action. American Blackout. The Art of the Steal. Who Killed the Electric Car? Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.
Which brings me to where I am right now – waiting to watch Waiting for Superman, the new documentary which follows five students through the process of a charter school admissions lottery while make a scathing indictment of teachers and teachers unions as the scourge of public education.
This all makes me wonder. What does it mean to watch propaganda with an open mind? While watching this film about education which does not include the experience of teachers can I ignore and negate my 34 years experience as a classroom teacher and all of the knowledge that that entails?
Is it possible to watch a film like this, one which is unabashedly making an argument and hoping that the argument leads to social change, with an “open mind” when opening my mind would entail denying my own lived experiences?
When I was watching The Business of Being Born, I was already convinced that something is terribly wrong with the way women give birth in the country, given my own experience 30 years ago when I was pushed to have an unnecessary C-section. Or while watching King Corn, I already believed that altered and processed foods are making corporations rich and ruining our health. It didn’t take very much to convince me of the evils of fast foods or global warming in Super Size Me or An Inconvenient Truth. These films served to solidify my already established beliefs.
Exactly how open was my mind to counter arguments, missing perspectives, shoddily drawn connections when I was already inclined to believe the points the filmmakers were trying to make?
Waiting for Superman is different for me. Yes I know that our education system in broken. I know that children’s lives depend on which school they get to go to. And I believe that Davis Guggenhem really cares about children and education. But, I fear that this film will become THE Film about education, that the examples cited will become THE models for change, and that teachers and our unions will be further demonized in American popular culture.
So .. sometime in the next week or two, when I finally go see Waiting for Superman, I will be watching my own reactions and responses to it as well as watching the film itself. And I will be asking – is it possible to watch a film like this, one which has a specific argument to make, with an open mind when I have decades of lived experience relating to the film’s content. Can I set my frameworks aside and check my experiences at the door?
Is it even a good idea to do so?