The Common Good
January 2011

Truth and Storytelling

by Gareth Higgins | January 2011

It's a golden age for documentaries.

It's a golden age for documentaries. Michael Moore kick-started the era with crusading films such as Bowling for Columbine and Sicko, fusing serious social commentary with a protagonist who could be identified with by a wider audience than the "God's-eye view" used in magnificent PBS films by Ken Burns, such as The Civil War and Jazz. Burns seeks a resonant "objective" perspective, relating tales of U.S. history as if our lives depended on it (which of course, if you accept that those who forget are doomed to repeat, it does). Moore wants to place us at the story’s center, revealing the insecurities at the heart of American social strife as something that we could all do something about.

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Moore and Burns are only the most popular and widely seen of recent documentarians. They stand alongside Errol Morris, whose treatment of the life of Robert McNamara, The Fog of War, may be the best analysis of how political rhetoric can mask horrific action; Michael Apted, whose Up series, following the lives of several people since their seventh birthdays in 1964, constitutes a social history of the past 50 years; and most of all the Maysles Brothers, who were among those who invented the form, with films such as Salesman, an astonishing vision of the corruption of commerce and religion, and Grey Gardens, which serves as a mirror image to the myths of Camelot that surround JFK's presidency. All of these films paved the way for recent works fusing factual cinema with an ethical eye.

The best-marketed documentary of the year is Waiting for "Superman," a film about public education failings that is directed by Davis Guggenheim, whose An Inconvenient Truth marked a tipping point in the cultural awareness of climate change. The challenges facing educators in equipping children for contemporary life are huge. The system seems singularly incapable of meeting the needs of kids coming of age in a broken economy, surrounded by a culture war that has not yet produced much moral leadership that thoughtful parents might wish to trust.

More's the pity, then, that Waiting for "Superman" is such a disappointment. Its theory of education -- explicitly referred to as filling the empty heads of children with letters and numbers -- omits any reference to the formation of character, the nurturing of compassion, or anything beyond the impartation of facts for the purpose of producing new economic units. Its advocacy of charter schools as the single answer to America's educational woes is reductionist, and it fails to make its case coherently. There’s no doubting the sincerity of its maker’s intent, and hopefully the film will provoke a meaningful public debate. But Waiting for "Superman" feels more like an unfinished term paper than a credible proposal for change.

Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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