Academy Award-winning doc filmmaker Davis Guggenheim at moments became emotional, choking up as he spoke about one of the girls, Daisy, he profiles in his latest film, "Waiting for Superman," which exposes the breakdown in American education.
"I've watched this movie 40 times and I watch Daisy in East Los Angeles and she's motivated, smart and her father works as a truck driver, while her mother cleans hospital rooms. She wants to be a doctor and her parents have hope. They believe that if they do their part that America will do its part."
At the core of "Superman" is whether America has the will and courage to face up to its spiraling public education system. While it has been generally accepted that education in America has faced a frightening decline, with statistics to back up that fear, Guggenheim ("An Inconvenient Truth") hopes that the film will motivate people to believe that a crisis that may appear intractable can be reformed and improved despite the perception that it is a system stymied by entrenched paralysis.
"For me, the thing I'm trying to attack in this movie is the mental block Americans have that the problems in American education is too complex," Guggenheim said in Toronto Saturday ahead of its premiere here (the film played at the Sundance, L.A. and Seattle film fests earlier this year). If the film can puncture through that disconnect then the problem doesn't seem so impossible."
Microsoft founder (and currently the world's second richest man) Bill Gates has made education reform a focus of his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, handing over $2 billion in grants to create better schools. Gates traveled to Toronto to promote the film at TIFF, reiterating what he has said repeatedly in the media about what he sees as the precarious position of the U.S.'s competitiveness in the world economy in a system that allows so many young people to fail.
"In engineering and science, the U.S. is producing people with expertise in these areas in a decreasing fashion, and as a result, the latest high tech companies are being created in areas like Asia. Even at Microsoft, it has become more difficult to find people to fill positions we need. In some areas of [the company], 70% of the people are foreign-born. This is something business should care about. There's a two points here. [America's] competitiveness in the world economy and there is the moral point of failing children."
Singer John Legend, also in Toronto, was so motivated after seeing footage of "Superman," that he agreed to write a song for the film, "Shine." Equating education with civil rights, he said that he credited his parents for helping him to excel, though he sees a system that is fragmented and basically forces certain groups to fail.
"I care about social justice and making America and the world believe that you can succeed," said Legend. "I was a bit angry and sad to some extent seeing some of these kids lives hang in the balance because of a [charter school] lottery and a school system that makes our children have to be in a lottery. It made me angry and passionate to do something."