Davis Guggenheim Q&A: ‘Teach’ documentary
Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") has directed three feature documentaries about American public education:"The First Year," "Waiting for 'Superman,'" and now "Teach," which aired on the Pivot network and is up for an Emmy nomination for Best Documentary or Nonfiction Special. If there's one thing he's learned it's that the most important factor in students' success is the quality of their teachers. "Everyone who works in schools, they know what works is great teaching," said Guggenheim in our recent webcam chat (watch below).
As he explained, "You can go to a school that is low on funding, tough neighborhood, but they've got great teachers – that school has a shot. And you could have the opposite, which is a school that has everything, the highest, most beautiful campus, the wealthiest kids, and your teachers aren't very good – that school doesn't really have a shot."
Guggenheim has devoted years to his films about public education, which is ironic because he never intended to be a documentarian: "When I came to Los Angeles, my only goal was to never make a documentary. My father made documentaries. I drove out in my Volkswagen Jetta in 1988, and I was going to make it as a Hollywood director."
That changed after his firing from the film "Training Day": "I was so upset by it that I bought a little video camera and said, I want to make a movie about people I like, so I went and followed five first-year teachers in 1999 to 2000 and followed them through their first year in Los Angeles … I'd never seen a world with so many stakes, I'd never seen a job that had so much about it that mattered … this is where the battle for America is won or lost."
His second feature about the American education system, "Waiting for 'Superman,'" was met with controversy, in part for its depiction of charter schools, which was one reason why he took a different approach for "Teach." As he elaborated, "One of the criticisms of ['Superman'], which I thought was sort of understandable given watching the movie but not quite fair given our intentions, is that it was pro-charter and it didn't focus on traditional public schools, and I said, well let's do something very different here."
The four teachers he found for "Teach" worked in traditional public schools in California, Idaho, and Colorado and represent different subjects and experience levels. His intent was to show not just their skills as educators, but their commitment to getting better: "Part of the motive of this movie was, how do teachers become great? And seeing them become great in front of your eyes I think is a very useful process."