Too many children and too few spots — that is the story of The Lottery, a heart-wrenching documentary from Madeleine Sackler, the story of four children hoping to be the among the fortunate few chosen for admission to New York City’s best-performing public schools. The consequences of a random selection can be life-changing for the better or worse and can affect the entire family. Will the child become an active, engaged learner open to opportunity? Or will the child be condemned to a school system weighed down by bureaucracy and a structure that puts the interests of teachers over those of students? And it is a poignant contrast to Nursery University, the documentary about the scramble for New York City’s most sought-after preschools.
I spoke to director Madeleine Sackler about making the film and what she learned.
How did this film come together?
There were really two reasons I decided to make the film. The first was a statistic I read a few years ago out of New Haven that 17% of kids were at grade level. And there’s a school downtown serving the same kids that had 71%. And then several years later I saw footage of the lottery that we ended up featuring in the film and I realized that there were so many parents trying to get their kids into a better school and I became interested in telling that story.
How do you describe your style as a documentarian?
I really like cinema verite films. The director of photography I was fortunate enough to work with had shot some of my favorite verite films like “Children Underground.” The way that the stories are told without narration poses unique challenges for the filmmaker. Initially that was what the whole film was going to be, a portrait of four families. We encountered all of this political controversy surrounding the school that they wanted and I couldn’t ignore that but that meant we had to include more narration than we originally planned.
I was happy to see Geoffrey Canada in the film because I am interested in his work.
He’s an amazing guy and his schools are phenomenal. The three school leaders, Geoffrey Canada, Eva Moskowitz, and Dacia Toll, that are featured in the film have almost 30 schools between them. There are good charter schools and bad charter schools but these leaders show that their schools can be replicated. The point is not whether the school is charter or not, but that some people have demonstrated that they can make it work. Some people point to charter schools that aren’t as successful as a reason we should not have charters as an option but I do not understand that. No one wants to replicate bad schools. There are some school leaders that are willing and ready to open more schools that have a very successful track record.
There’s a few things that are consistent among higher-performing schools. The first is the use of data to drive both instruction and teacher and student evaluation. It’s exciting to watch because every few weeks kids can be moved around according to their achievement level. So the students are always achieving at the highest possible level. They’re not in groups with kids that are significantly behind. They often end up reading at one or two or more grade levels ahead which I think is exciting. And then school culture is something you cannot quantify but it is very noticeable at these schools. They are all very focused on high achievement, from working to get the parents on board to the teachers and students and administrators.
They do things like naming the classrooms after the university that the teacher went to and naming the grades the year that the kids will graduate from college. Instead of being in kindergarten, the student will be something like “Wesleyan 2024.” So they’re constantly working toward that goal.
It’s also the flexibility to hire and let go teachers, to lengthen the school day and the school year and to adjust the curriculum and instruction methods really at the drop of a hat if they see it isn’t working today they can fix it tomorrow.
What are the biggest obstacles to success in the regular school system?
There are some fantastic traditional public schools so it is possible, but the lack of flexibility makes it harder. Those rules have been shown not to lead to success. There are some fantastic traditional public schools, but those rules make it a lot harder and have not been shown to lead to success.
How can you address the problem of reaching parents to make education a priority for their children?
Involving the parents is something the high performing schools work very, very hard at. They don’t necessarily have a 100% success rate but that means they have to make up the difference. As a society it’s a moral obligation for us to give kids that opportunity. I talked to a lot of parents who were very frustrated with all of the rules and obligations, but then when their kids were reading before all of their friends’ kids, they were happy. People respond to results. But a study documented that it is the school that makes the biggest difference.
Here’s a sneak peek from the upcoming “Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue,” coming this fall on DVD and Blu-Ray. In this new story, Tinker Bell meets a human for the first time – an 8-year old girl named Lizzy and a new friendship begins.
The star and director of the last two “Bourne” movies are back and much is the same — the gritty, intimate, documentary feel, the sense of peril and dynamic staging of action, the able but conflicted leading man. But there is an important difference. “Bourne” is based on a series of novels, but “The Green Zone” is based on a non-fiction book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City by former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran, about the failed search for weapons of mass destruction in post-Mission Accomplished Iraq.
The “Bourne” movies were more than the usual slick spy story. Bourne was spying on his own past and what was revealed did not match real-life events but it resonated with them, giving the films some extra heft. “The Green Zone,” however, bases the story in recent events. It tweaks the names and some of the circumstances of the main characters, but not enough to establish a separate, consistent reality, just enough to be distracting. Audiences will look at the Wall Street Journal reporter played by Amy Ryan and stop to whisper, “Is she supposed to be Judy Miller? Is there a reason that a different character’s name is Miller? And who is that other guy supposed to be?” Those who are up on all of the details of the Iraqi war will be distracted by what is missing. Those who are not will be distracted by what is included.
As Damon and his men chase through crumbling buildings on blown-up streets, chasing and being chased, we see that all of their crack training and cutting-edge technology are no match for a situation that does not meet any previous military definitions or capacities. There are no foxholes or battle lines. Like the Light Brigade, they are expected to charge forward, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do & die.” But when a Chief Warrant Officer (Damon) finds that he is repeatedly risking his life to retrieve weapons of mass destruction that do not exist, he wants to find out why the intel is so consistently unreliable. And then, when no one else seems to care about that, he wants to find out why. Shock and Awe seems to have deteriorated quickly into a quagmire.
His quest takes him though a crumbling palace, chandeliers incongruously shoved aside, to an even more surreal location in the American compound, with girls lounging in bikinis by a pool, being served pizza and beer. He meets a local with a prosthetic leg (Khalid Abdalla, excellent as “Freddy”), who leads him to the man who is the Jack of Clubs in the war criminal deck of cards. But it turns out that his mission is not what he had thought. “Democracy is messy,” a Pentagon official (Greg Kinnear) tells him. “We’re here to do a job and get home safe,” another soldier says. “I thought we were all on the same side,” the Chief Warrant Officer tells the CIA representative (Brendan Gleeson). “Don’t be naive,” he responds. It turns out hardly anyone is on the same side as anyone else. Both sides have splintered into factions with shifting loyalties and murky motives. And the wall of the prison where Iraqis are being tortured says, “Honor Bound to Serve Freedom.”
But this script’s attempts to be intricate underscore how much it simplifies the reality, especially with a gesture at the end that is supposed to be cathartic but instead just makes us question the reliability of everything we’ve seen. Over-simplified and under-played, this movie wants to be more than the fictional Bourne series but ends up being less. I’m betting that this was a studio-imposed effort to make the film more marketable after a series of disappointing box office returns for Iraqi war movies. Some day, maybe, there will be a director’s cut that will recognize that like democracy, some movies need to be messy, too.