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Waiting for “Superman” film

Here’s what you need to know about Waiting for “Superman.” It’s not a film—it’s a propaganda campaign.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The term “propaganda” has gotten a bad rap, ever since its association with 20th-century totalitarian governments promoting troubling political objectives. But there is a long and honorable tradition of propaganda in the genre of documentary films. In its original formulation, “propaganda” is simply a deliberate effort to change what people know, understand and value, for a particular purpose. Propaganda can rely on many different media and symbols to carry its message. Documentary films have often sought to activate a sense of urgency about a social problem or condition that needs our attention. The medium of film is especially powerful because propaganda often appeals to emotion as much as reason, and film is very effective at evoking an emotional response. Much better than, say, a speech by Al Gore, Arne Duncan or Bill Gates.

I had the opportunity to view Waiting for “Superman,” the new documentary by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, at a pre-release screening at Teachers College in New York City on September 17th. Based on the early buzz from proponents and detractors alike, I expected to see a film that lived up to its billing as “stirring” or “moving.”

Although Guggenheim, who also directed An Inconvenient Truth, is a skilled filmmaker, I didn’t enjoy the film as an aesthetic experience. But that’s because I found myself second-guessing the director’s choices. The audience at Teachers College, which was quite diverse, seemed to like the movie, laughing at predictable times but growing silent as the film built to the climactic scenes in which five children’s futures were portrayed as riding on the outcome of charter-school lotteries.

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Aaron Pallas is Professor of Sociology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He has also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, and Northwestern University, and...

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