A staged scene in`Superman’

Francisco and his mom in "Waiting for Superman." (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

For those of you who’ve seen the “Waiting for Superman” documentary: Remember when Maria is touring Harlem Success Academy, ostensibly hoping her son, Francisco, will one day be in one of those classrooms she’s observing? When she says she’ll wake up at 5 a.m., if necessary, to get him there?

(Spoiler alert) That scene was actually shot after the dramatic lottery drawing shown at the end of the film, the New York Times reported. Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director, said he asked Maria to tour the school, with the cameras, after she learned her son wouldn’t be going there.

Guggenheim defends the decision to Times blogger Sharon Otterman, saying it captured the mother’s genuine emotions.

You might have heard about this already — the Times report did come out a couple of weeks ago — but I just came across it. When the reporter asked if other scenes were out of chronological order, Guggenheim said, “None that I can think of.”

Does it alter your view of the film in any way?

From the Times blog:

Re-enactment and reordering has been part of documentary film-making since its start, and the Academy Awards for documentary film explicitly allow it. In fact, said Jonathan Kahana, a scholar of documentary film at New York University, the history of documentary is very much a history of re-enactment, “with blips, here and there, of something that we think of as vérité.”

That said, he and four other film experts and filmmakers interviewed said they were uncomfortable with the way Mr. Guggenheim inserted the scene, because there is no signal to viewers that it is anything but a real event, and because Maria’s emotional mindset is taken out of context.

Patricia Aufderheide, the director of the Center for Social Media at American University, did a study in which she and other scholars interviewed 45 documentary filmmakers about their ethical approach. “Documentarians firmly believe that altering chronology in itself is not a betrayal of a good faith relationship with an audience,” Ms. Aufderheide said. “But altering chronology when it fundamentally alters the interpretation of what happened, that’s when you get an ethical breach.”

“In this case, it does affect the interpretation of what happened, because you believe that she is still hopeful,” she added. “It represents her in being in one set of expectations when she was actually in another set of expectations.”

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • http://www.skylinehs.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=77763&type=u&rn=6808095 David Orphal

    I hope that critics of “Waiting for Superman” do not focus on the staging of a scene.

    Having made documentaries myself, I can say that it is common to stage a scene. Typically this is done because the real-life events that are in the scene happened before the camera arrived. Staging a scene is not dishonest. Guggenheim is telling an honest story.

    I hope that critics of “Waiting for Superman ” stay focused on the important criticisms of the film:

    1. Of course there are some charter schools that are having more success that traditional public school – but most charters are not. Most charters are doing about the same and the traditional public schools they’ve replaced, and many are even doing worse.

    2. Not all public schools are doing as poorly as portrayed in the film. In fact, most public schools are doing well. The numbers of eligible applicants for college, including the numbers of eligible African American and Latina (o) applicants for college have gone up in the era of “The schools are failing! The schools are failing!”

    3. A lot of schools are really struggling! Far too many kids are dropping out. Far too many kids are still not ready for college.

    4. The triumvirate of high-stakes testing, accountability, and market-based school choice does nothing to help fix the problem. Pointing a finger, shaking a disappointed head, and telling schools and teachers to “Do better or else.” Does nothing to solve the problem

  • Turanga_teach

    Had she toured the school prior to this? Because if not, this is heartbreaking. It is one thing (still a sad and sour thing) if the visit they filmed is Maria’s second glimpse of that school–but if they went that far out of everybody’s way to show her, intimately and for the first time, something she wanted for her son but couldn’t have, then I think a line was crossed.

  • http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/2009/02/one_urban_district_with_a_bad_1.html Anthony Cody

    Davis Guggenheim this week asked teachers for feedback. Here is what they had to say — he got an earful!

  • August Moon

    So. What.

    The Oakland Charters are destroying OUSD schools in student achievement.

  • oakie

    David Orphal Says:
    “4. The triumvirate of high-stakes testing, accountability, and market-based school choice does nothing to help fix the problem.”

    Really? I thought Michelle Rhee’s time in control of Washington schools has already yielded significant improvements. Of course, it was aborted by the union, demonstrating what it is good at: using it’s political power to prevent real reform and preserve their employment without the need for performing competently.

    If “high-stakes” testing and accountability is useless, then why do we test kids in school, and give them grades?

    “Market-based” school choice is the only way to break the monopoly and hegemonic control of a dysfunctional system in a dropout factory like OUSD. After all, the one authentic and visceral message screaming out of Superman is that the parents deserve a choice other than the monopoly public school.

  • fruitvale teacher

    OK I’ll bite, August Moon. Is it true that charters are “destroying” public schools in student achievement? I’m assuming that you measure student achievement by test scores, which as we know have problems, not the least of which are that the tests are in English and many of our students are enrolled in bilingual programs.

    But I’m not only a teacher… I’m also shopping for Kindergarten for my son. So yes, I am looking at APIs at Oakland elementary schools in the two neighborhoods I may be living in, North Oakland and Fruitvale.

    North Oakland:
    I found two established charter schools:
    Berkeley Maynard, 825; NOCCS, 899
    And two high-scoring public schools:
    Peralta, 910; Anna Yates(Emeryville), 774
    And two low-scoring public schools:
    Sankofa, 717; Santa Fe, 667

    The charter school is World Academy, 785
    The public schools are
    TCN, 859; Seed, 842; ICS, 770; and Manzanita, 733

    At the elementary level, reform has succeeded in raising test scores in the public schools. Whether all of those reforms were valuable, or whether other worthy forms of learning were sacrificed at the altar of test scores — this is debatable. But to state that charters are destroying public schools in the arena of test scores – is just plain false.

    It may be true at the middle school or high school level – I think reform there is more complicated – but at those levels the skewing of the scores by cherrypicking of students becomes even more pronounced – so I am personally very skeptical of the superiority of charters…

    and will most likely send my son to Seed (which is not hard to get into) so he can have both decent test scores *and* become proficient in Spanish at the same time.

  • winnipeg nancy

    fruitvale teacher – where will your child attend high school? destroying is right.

    look here too – Ravitch gets shut down:


    charters are new. in time, they will make districts look worse and worse.

  • Sue

    Um, W Nancy, I’m surprised anyone would ask such a premature question.

    My youngest is in 8th grade at Montera Middle School, and we’re still not sure where he’ll go to high school. Leaning towards Skyline where his older brother went and did very well, but we’re also looking at Oakland Tech, and a discussion on this blog a while back also prompted our family to look at Oakland High too.

    Asking: “Where will a soon-to-be-kindergartener attend high school?”

    That’s got to be intended as a joke – doesn’t it.

  • Shawn


    The question in my opnion, is valid- if you’re black or brown of course!~.

    The above points defer to a deep concern that has not been answered in many generations lost for Oakland minority families- elementary schools do well, but the middle and highs are dangerously dismal! Point to OUSD success in the flats!

    Look at the data for yourself. OUSD has a droput rate among black and ELL populations that far exceeded the state and national percentage.

    What happens is that students are younger and easier to deal with at elementary school- so ideas such as jumping on a roof to dance as a celebration, or hosting bake sales may still work for most kiddie schools.

    What about those students and families whose behaviors have been “tolerated” at the elementary school grow up?

    I will tell you what happens- they are emboldened by the typical liberal excuse making taught by do gooders at the elementary schools, and by this age, the now teenage youth know the deal. Liberals and schools will bow down! Authority at school is non exisitant, and they earn the respect of their peers by defyting those do gooders who now are do nothings! Couple this with the reality that they are older and bolder and will start to assert themselves overall. Gheott human development is a bit differnt than those at Hilcrest right?

    Ah yes- their parents who were the ” advocates for involvement” at the elementary schol principal level , will turn and defend their “mijos and babies” and the middle and high school leaders are at a loss with what has happened to this former 4.0 student!

    Happens all the time.

    So if you are black or brown- hell yes it is a valid point to ask at the Kindergarten level- it does not get better! Look at the data, visit the schools and grimace! How many blacks and Latinos are in AP or Honors classes?

    All duped by the “just let it be” mentailty folks- thats a shame!

    A better question my well intended hermanos and brothas is , can we afford to move?!

  • Sue

    Okay, Shawn. Your view is that responsible parents should be picking out their child’s high school at the same time that they’re deciding on where the child is going to attend kindergarten.

    I think I got that much right from the first sentence of your otherwise incoherent post.

    Let’s see if I can get anything meaningful out of the second sentence: “The above points defer to a deep concern that has not been answered in many generations lost for Oakland minority families” – okay, more accurately, that’s a sentence fragment, not a complete sentence.

    I think what was intended was: “the above points *refer* …

    From my Webster’s pocket dictionary:
    defer: to postpone: delay
    refer: to direct for aid, information, etc.

    I apologize; I don’t normally pick on people for spelling, punctuation, grammar, or other minor errors in posts. I’d much rather deal with the substance and the ideas – the meaning of a post.

    My problem with your post is that I can’t figure out any of your meanings, ideas or substance. I simply don’t get it. Would you be willing to try again?

  • Debora

    Here is why a person might want to think about the middle and high schools they are aiming for when seeking a kindergarten:

    1. Will the teacher spend a great deal of class time disciplining the class rather than teaching. In kindergarten it will look like being able to read a story and discuss where the story takes place, who are the characters in the story, if they are animals do they take on human characteristics or do they behave like animals do in real life. If she/he is disciplining the class, the focus will be on “rug” behavior, defining the cover of the book, the back cover of the book, the left to right of the text, the title page and the turning of the pages – yes, literally. All the while discussing how to behave while sitting in a group on the rug over, and over and over.

    2. A kindergarten teacher who does not have to spend a great deal of time with discipline will have students writing sentences with invented spelling by the winter break. Discipline problem classrooms will continue to have upper and lower case letter sheets.

    3. Discipline classrooms will work on colors, shapes and sizes while discipling and redirecting student behavior. Classes with students whose behavior is on task will be sorting those shapes into a Venn diagram (one type, similar traits, another type).

    And so on. The big difference. Without discipline problems, the students will be able to compact kindergarten and half of first grade. The discipline-needing kindergarten may finish what is needed for kindergarten completion, and maybe not. What that looks like at the end of fifth grade is students in a well-disciplined environment are reading novels and answering questions about the author’s intent, how the setting affected the behavior of the characters in the story and whether the events in the story (if a historical setting) could happen today, why or why not. In a discipline problem classroom, students would be using Open Court stories because they many will not have read a novel from cover to cover.

    Writing for one classroom will be a well-composed three paragraph essay with a strong topic sentence, details supported by the material and a concluding sentence or even a concluding paragraph supported by details and inferences. The other classroom will still be composing sentences using sentence stems from the board such as The main character in the story . . .

    And finally, the fifth grade students who did not required constant redirection will have thought about math and inserted details for variables, they will be ready for Algebra in sixth or seventh grade because multiplication facts are known, variables have been used for several years and thinking about objects in place of numbers has been happening since kindergarten and first grade. The other students will struggle with multiplication facts in fifth grade. They will not see the patterns of percentages, decimals and fractions, each will be a new learning experience. Middle school teachers will say that algebra is “too abstract” a concept and that it is “mean” to force them into something too soon.

    The discipline group will feel burnt out because of the constant repetition and the lack of thinking and persisting because they have not built mental muscle.

    The other group will be angry if they are forced into classes where they are not able to learn if there are discipline problems. Their families are likely to pull them out of public middle school because these students are ready to soar in their learning. They are capable of the challenges of seven or eight classes a day and they see the integration of math, science, literature, philosophy, foreign language and trivium (logic, rhetoric and grammar).

    We need to find a way to allow those students with self-discipline or imposed discipline to have public school in which their learning can soar.

    The kindergarten examples I describe, my daughter has experienced. The fifth grade examples, my daughter has experienced. What she wants and has asked us, her parents to find is the integration I have described. She is willing to attend a school in which she knows no one to be able to “learn every day at school.” Did we think of this when she was in kindergarten, no, we did not know we had a kid who so desired knowledge that she would be willing to go in early, stay late and work raking leaves, walking dogs and washing cars so she could take math and writing classes. Had I known, I too, may have been waiting for Superman.

  • Shawn

    Sue, how is this… this is a blog and as such, I post straight, as many others, with what is on my mind and do not post to be corrected by a hills dwelling, do nothing stay at home teacher. If you want to edit- go teach; til then listen and get taught the perspective of those who you seem to think you argue for, yet be careful of as you drive down your damn hill.

    Of course you do not, and will not get it. Why should you..this world is yours. I dont try to explain my points to you…why?


    Now excuse my spelling, and lack of proper grammar usage…. I attended Oakland Public Schools is it that apparent? Maybe you could tutor me oh smart one? Got to love the sense of power and authority your people have.

  • Gordon Danning


    You can ignore Sue; your points in your post were perfectly clear, if not always expressed as artfully as Sue might prefer.

    I am curious about your view, as a former student: What went right and what went wrong re: your experience in OUSD? Also, I am curious when you graduated and where you attended high school.

  • Sue

    Shawn, I’m sorry that you felt picked on or insulted by my post. I put a lot of thought and effort into it, and tried to be polite as well as direct about what I felt was the primary cause of my lack of understanding. I honestly didn’t understand what you were trying to express, and I still don’t after rereading your words multiple times.

    Gordon, since you got it, maybe you can translate for me? Please? I know I’m missing the point, and I don’t mind admitting that, and asking someone to clarify.

    Shawn, you’ve made a whole lot of bad assumptions about me. Let’s start with where I live – and it’s not in the hills. My house is in the Allendale Park neighborhood. That’s East Oakland flatlands. I basically never drive anymore – it’s too expensive. I’ve been riding AC transit for decades. I’m neither a teacher, nor an editor. I am a veteran of the military, and I have a college degree only because the military was paying my tuition. I’m not arguing for anybody except Spec. Ed. student needs. (That’s because my older son has autism. I’m really proud of how hard he’s worked to graduate from high school, and I’m still amazed every single day when he gets up and independently gets himself to his college classes on public transit! OUSD can do some things right!) What I was doing on Wednesday, and what I’m doing again today, is asking for help understanding someone else’s point of view.

    “Of course you do not, and will not get it. Why should you..this world is yours. I dont try to explain my points to you…why?”

    I sincerely wish the world was mine – I see a lot of things that could be different, better, more equal / just / fair. Being a woman in the military isn’t the same as being a person of color in a white-majority society, but I think there are parallels. I did a lot of things to make my perspective clearer to the males who didn’t like having “girls” in their males-only club. Shouting, “you’re just a male chauvanist pig, and you’ll never understand” wouldn’t have helped me or those men. Some of them got a clue, some didn’t. Sometimes my efforts at explaining made things easier for me, and more often for the younger women who followed after me.

    Maybe, if you made the effort to explain yourself and your points, someone from the world-you-imagine-I-live-in will get a clue or two. Maybe that will make things a little better for you. Maybe (more likely) it’ll make things better for the kids who are growing up in that world now. Maybe it won’t. But the only way to know is to try.

    Maybe you’ve already tried, and it didn’t work. I had a Senior Master Sergeant tell me to get out of his Air Force, and there was nothing I could ever do to convince him that I belonged there – I finally said, “you’re right, and as soon as I complete my enlistment as I swore an oath to do, I’ll be leaving.” I couldn’t make everyone see things the way I did. I know you can’t either.

    Maybe, since I’ve asked again, you’ll give it another try, and maybe you won’t. That’s your choice, and no one can force you to do anything. All I can do is ask.

    I know the world isn’t great. I’ve been supporting a family of four on a single income for the last 18 years, and that’s d@mn hard for a woman to do anywhere, but especially in the Bay Area.

    I can’t fix everything all by myself (I still make less money than the men doing the same job I do), but I’ve been a successful advocate for my children’s educations, and I’d like to do my part to make OUSD better for others too. My problem is that I can’t do anything useful at all until I get a clue about what’s wrong.

    So, please, hit me over the head a few more times with that clue-by-four if it will make you feel better. But as Grandma (she put a lot of time into raising me and my sisters and brother when our mother was in various mental hospitals – no ideal “middle-class childhood” for us!) used to say, “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Your choice – rail about the status quo, which won’t change anything, or try another approach, which might give you new friends who could help make improvements.

  • Cranky Teacher

    On the original post: This is NOT OK documentary approach, no matter what the Academy Awards might say. Docs, at least the ones that try to position themselves as “neutral” and based on straight reporting, are an extension of journalism and must honor the truth in spirit and practice.

    However, it IS typical of agit-prop (propaganda) media where the makers believe the ends (pushing their “line”) justify any means (exaggeration, taking out of context, etc.)

    But we already knew Waiting for Superman (as well as the other lottery-based doc out there) is ridiculously one-sided and manipulative.

    Since I was a fan of some Michael Moore docs, which are similarly one-sided, however, I can’t really come down to hard on this one just because I disagree with some of its premises. Although, one thing differentiating Moore is that he always puts his role and presence out front, so it is hard to say he is portraying his movies as neutral.

    Just know what you are getting: One side of the story, tightly filtered.

    One thing that is true about charters and public schools is that the test scores will always primarily reflect the make-up of the student body and only secondarily the quality of the school itself. Without being compared to a baseline based on all students prior ability/knowledge, the API scores are just a crude snapshot of who your child’s peers would be at that school.

    I am also still confused that charters that don’t hew to the testing-first mantra are not allowed by Oakland, such as the shuttered Oasis, which targeted students who had already basically dropped out of school. I’m sure it wasn’t a perfect school, but I knew teachers that worked there which felt it was an amazing place for totally alienated kids, but when they wouldn’t make themselves into a cookie-cutter test prep school, the district yanked the charter.

    I like school choice — but are we really allowing it?

  • Nextset

    Cranky’s right.

    The school scores mainly reflect the racial distribution of the students. That factor is so strong a casual observer cannot determine the added value of the school program. The collection of students reflected in the scores from Piedmont High for example could teach themselves well enough to out perform OUSD High Schools. Piedmont High is outstanding in merely being a safe piece of (exclusionary) real estate for this population to hang out in.

    It’s a Brave New World thing – race and class sorting and assortive mating.

    If we were to take the LAUSD and OUSD populations and work their schools the way we did in the early 1960s, rigidly sort the students and put them in segregated schools – segregated by performance regardless of race or zip code – We would still have largely segregated schools but the higher performing minorities would freely move up into the better schools if & as they applied and passed review. So the segregation would not be strictly by race even if racial performance issues would still dominate the stats.

    And I think that’s the best we can hope for.

    And it’s not going to happen as long as liberals stay in power. They’d rather condemn all (non-wealthy) blacks and browns to ghetto schools that are failure factories, while piously saying we are all equal and trotting out this year’s gap-narrowing scam.

  • http://charterschoolscandals.blogspot.com/ Sharon

    The good news of the day is that “Waiting for Superman” was completely snubbed and is out of contention for an Oscar.


    I guess the Academy wasn’t charmed by this piece of propaganda.