Thoughts on documentary

Today we got some very helpful feedback from our classmates after we showed our assembly cut in class. I think that based off of our classmates’ feedback, it would be beneficial for us to sit down as a group and discuss what parts of Brian’s story we want to include in our final documentary. Obviously, there is a lot of background information about him that we could include, and I was happy to hear Marley say that our SOT of Brian talking about deciding to go to space camp showed her a lot about his background. I was glad to hear that we already have some SOTs that can connect Brian’s background with the school closings for our audience. Since Brian has a very compelling story and life beyond just his work with the Chicago Students Organizing to Save Our Schools, I think that today’s responses from our classmates showed us that we need to make sure that we are always (or nearly always) telling his story as it connects to the schools that are closing, otherwise we risk straying away from the central theme of the film.

Our biggest challenge at this point is getting our viewers to care about the schools that are closing. Right now, we haven’t been able to film at all inside of a school since CPS has denied us entry into any school for filming purposes. I think that in our rough cut, I’d like to include some footage from the protests much earlier on, almost so that we introduce Brian and the issue of school closings much earlier on in the piece and do not end focusing too much on Brian’s story that we don’t tell the story of the school closings. I think we could make the reality of school closings hit home if we use protest footage early on, and perhaps began the film by having a few students from the protests say why they are there, so as to introduce our audience to the fact that schools are closing in Chicago and students are fighting to save them. From there, I think we could focus in on Brian, and it would be great to ask him in our master interview to explain how Banneker is representative of all of the schools that are closing for him. We still need some way to show, not tell, what Brian is saying about the schools being a resource to the community, and I think Alisa’s idea of trying to film students at an extracurricular activity might be a great way around the problem of CPS not letting us into classrooms. Another SOT that I think will be important to include in the film is one from Seth Lavin (who is in our assembly cut), when he explains that CPS’s top administrators have frequently changed over the past several years, and that the current administration has only been there for about six months. When they have been at CPS for such a short amount of time, Lavin says, how can they know enough to make the decision to conduct the largest mass school closing in Chicago’s history? For me this was a powerful SOT that drew me into the issue and made me question CPS’s tactics. 

Pandora’s Promise critique

Although the documentary “Pandora’s Promise” has little to do with our film about school closings in Chicago, for me there was one large parallel. Pandora’s Promise has the immensely difficult task of changing people’s mindsets about nuclear energy—a task that became extraordinarily more difficult after the nuclear explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. Knowing that the film was in favor of nuclear energy, I was surprised that during the beginning of the documentary, arguments against nuclear energy were explained—I almost thought that I was wrong and that the film might be anti-nuclear energy. But in my opinion, this was one of the strongest points of the film. I thought that by clearly laying out reasons why people would be against nuclear energy ultimately made the film’s pro-nuclear stance stronger, as I understood arguments on both sides of the debate by the time the film finished.

Pandora’s Promise was clearly a film with a certain agenda—a pro-nuclear energy one—but it still managed to present both sides of a complex argument in a way that left me as the viewer feeling more educated about the issue. Regardless of any preconceptions that I had about nuclear power, and regardless of whether or not I left the film “pro-nuclear”, I thought that by the end of the film, I could understand the perspective of the filmmakers and why they chose to make a film advocating in favor of nuclear power. I thought the film was an excellent example of representing the many facets of a debate and still making a clear point.

As we progress in our film, I think that it is worth remembering that explaining the “other side” (in our case, CPS’s point of view) is important for our viewers. Ideally, it would be great to have someone from CPS explaining why they are going forth with school closings and what they will gain from them (aside from the fiscal reasons they have already given). If we can’t get that, I’d like to keep working with Seth Lavin (who we have already interviewed), as he said he has many connections within the teaching community in Chicago and would be happy to put us in contact with people. This might be the best way to show the “CPS side” if we can’t get a response from CPS themselves.

Another strength of Pandora’s Promise was the evidentiary support used to explain why nuclear power was a positive thing, overcoming the stereotypes of nuclear energy as dangerous and hazardous. Something that I took away from this part of the documentary in relation to our own is that research and presenting factual information is critical to overcoming the preconceived notions about the South Side or Chicago’s school system that people will come into the film with. I think Brian and the passion of other students that we can interview at protests will be a good way of showing that students on the South Side are extremely passionate about their education and hopefully Brian’s story as it relates to Banneker can show us that the students and families impacted by these school closings do not meet the traditional, negative stereotypes about the “south side”.

Documentary critique: The Lottery

I watched the film “The Lottery” for my next documentary critique because I was looking for films that tell stories of the struggle for adequate education in public schools, particularly as it impacts low income families, since this will be a core topic explored in our film. 

During this film, I paid close attention to the characters selected, the topics presented and the way the issues and the main characters were portrayed in the film. What resonated with me was the choice of the filmmakers to select four families on their journey toward the lottery to see if their children will be chosen to attend Harlem Success Academy. While there are only four families, each family has at least two, if not more individuals. For me as a viewer, I wondered why the filmmakers chose to include so many families, as I thought that this distracted from the overall goal of the film: to help viewers understand how difficult it is to find adequate education in low income parts of cities and to show that people who live in low-income neighborhoods care very deeply about the fate of their children, a stereotype I think the film worked hard to overcome.

For this film, I ultimately think that the filmmakers were trying to achieve two goals with the choice to feature four families. First, I think they wanted to show that countless families are struggling in the fight to get their children the best education possible. Second, I think they wanted to show the variety of families vying for a spot at Harlem Success Academy.

Still, by the end of the film I had heard four heartwarming stories, and wanted each child to be selected for Harlem Success. But I found it difficult to keep the families’ stories straight, forgetting which details belonged with which family when many faces being shown at the end of the film. For our film, especially since it will be much shorter in duration than The Lottery, I think it is important for us to remember that if we include multiple main characters, it will be useful to consider selecting people with different perspectives and voices, such as a family, a teacher, a community organizer, etc. I think if we approach our film this way, and allow one family to essentially represent the overall issues school closings pose for children and families, and then allow educators to speak about how school closings negatively impact education and finally allow community organizers to speak about something such as the impact that an empty school will have on the community of Englewood, we will paint a much richer and more balanced picture of what the situation is like in Chicago that is easy for our audience to follow.

Another aspect of the film that I greatly appreciated was the treatment of those for and against expanding Harlem Success Academy into another school already existing in Harlem. We will also have to make sure that we represent two sides of an issue: the community’s perspective and the administration, or CPS/Rahm Emanuel’s point of view. I think the filmmakers did an excellent job of giving viewers the statistics, visuals and testimonials that they needed in order to explain the point that they were trying to make: that charter schools are in high demand in Harlem, and that they truly help students. The film shows a town meeting in which people opposed to the expansion of Harlem Success Academy speak ignorantly about the topic of charter schools (in which the main character representing the charter school is treated with extreme disrespect). But the filmmakers have given us the statistics, facts and testimonials that we need to know that this is a much more complex issue. In essence, they let the “villains” speak for themselves, and the statistics and testimonials that we are given allowed the filmmakers to present their point of view in a way that is logical and compelling, ultimately making the film incredibly strong. I would like to keep this treatment of the “villain” and the “heroes” in mind as we begin to edit our film together.

The Times of Harvey Milk

What I focused on throughout watching the film The Times of Harvey Milk was the portrayal of both the protagonist and antagonist. I noticed two things that I would like to remember and incorporate in our documentary. First off, I thought that one of the strengths of The Times of Harvey Milk was that it portrayed both characters very fairly, which, as we discussed in class, was particularly important in the case of Dan White. Had I not already known the final outcome of the film and that Dan White was our villain, through the film’s portrayal of his character I might have anticipated that the climax of the film would be Dan White’s traditional values clashing with Harvey Milk’s support for gay rights. During the introduction to Dan White, I thought one of the strongest elements of the scene was how the visuals spoke for themselves, and hinted that perhaps our villain didn’t quite fit in in San Francisco, which for me was evident as he attempted to take a photo with a shopkeeper who squirmed away from him and seemed thoroughly uncomfortable. Because of the way the film began, this scene was my first glimpse into the idea that Dan White’s vision of politics didn’t really work in San Francisco, and I began to think that maybe despite the fact that our narrator described him fairly positively, that still didn’t mean that he was in the right place to enact his vision of politics.


When thinking about The Times of Harvey Milk in relation to our own film, I think about the moment we are introduced to Dan White, where he is described as a wholesome, “all-American” type politician. Here, and throughout the film, I noticed a parallelism between how both Dan White and Harvey Milk were portrayed. The narration and descriptions of both our characters never seem to blatantly further our thoughts of them as the “hero” or the “villain”, rather we are introduced to both characters through how they relate to others. Based on watching the film, the primary characteristic that we learn about Harvey was how inclusive he was, how although gay rights issues were personally close to him, he thought about the inclusion of all people, especially minorities. First and foremost, the film portrays him as a friend, even as a silly joker, not as the intense activist we might have pictured before watching the film. Dan White, on the other hand, is portrayed as out of touch with San Francisco society, but perhaps not out of touch with all of American society at that time, where gay rights issues were not nearly as prolific in popular news as they are today. Still, the initial portrayal of him as out of touch does not necessarily scream “villain” at the beginning of the piece. Even when we learn about his personal struggles after he resigns his office, he still seems like a character with personality traits we can understand, not as a murderous villain who will ultimately assassinate two people. I’d like to remember this treatment of these two characters, and use it as an inspiration for the portrayal of the victim and hero in our documentary.



Reflections on documentary

So far, our group as a whole has been quite excited about the documentary process. After meeting a few times, we’ve come up with an idea that we’re all looking forward to pursuing over the next several months. We plan to film a documentary dealing with the issue of schools closing on the South Side of Chicago. I’m looking forward to seeing where the process takes us. As of now, we are working to find three different angles/storylines for our project, with two possible stories in mind. I’m most interested in trying to find a student who has a learning disability and attends a school that is about to close. I think that while a school closing in general would be extremely difficult to deal with as a kid, having a learning disability would make the process even harder. I imagine that a student with ADD/ADHD, dyslexia or some other learning disability has most likely adapted to their current school in many ways. For me, the most obvious adaptation would be that the student and his or her parents will have some sort of relationship with school administrators or the special education department, and because of this, the student already gets accommodations to deal with their learning disability, such as extra time on tests, or whatever is needed. If a student with learning disabilities is bussed to a new school, one that might even be overcrowded due to all the new students coming in, will he or she be able to get access to the same services that they had before? Will it be more difficult for them to learn in a different school setting? Would larger class sizes make it more difficult for the student to focus and learn? Will the student be able to get the same accommodations in the new school as in the old?


On a level that would perhaps be difficult to film, I also wonder how this student would adapt socially to a new school. To a certain extent, I imagine that a student with a learning disability has certain coping mechanisms already in place—perhaps a group of friends he or she feels comfortable with, or a way of coping in class. I think it would be amazing if we could figure out a way to capture this struggle as the student shifts to a new school as well.


At this point what I’m most worried about is access—I think that this story would be a great one to tell, and I bet it is an issue for several families in Chicago. My biggest concern is whether or not we will be able to connect with these families, and then on top of that if we will be able to get as much access that we need to tell this story in the most compelling way. I’m hoping that we can begin doing research on what schools are likely to close in June, and from there contact schools or advocacy groups to help us reach out and find a great main character.