Filmmaker Jyllian Gunther was offered a job teaching documentary film at the new Brooklyn Community High School of Communication, Arts and Media, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, when it opened in 2006. Instead of taking the job she chose to make the school the subject of a documentary film. The New Public airs Tuesday night on public television's The World.
Gunther, who went to public schools in Manhattan, said she was taken by the new school's collaborative approach and the idealism of its staffers. She convinced the principal and the staffers to let her keep the cameras rolling; she gave cameras to parents, teachers and students.
The result is often raw and emotional. We see teachers struggling with discipline during the school's first year, when they realized that an inspiring arts theme isn't enough to keep students on track academically. One teacher, who was used to working with honors students at Dewitt Clinton High School, learned he had to take a completely different approach with ninth graders who weren't reading on grade level.
Gunther decided to return to the school in its fourth year, when the inaugural freshman class would be seniors.
"Once we were looking at footage after the first year it became clear that you couldn't tell the story of a new school in one year," she said.
By the fall of 2010, almost half of the original 104 students had transferred or dropped out. Some of the original teachers were also gone.
Gunther let her camera linger; viewers see people wrestling with problems that aren't easily solved.
"I really wanted to do a very observational vérité documentary where you are seeing the film from the perspective of the students, parents and teachers," she said. "And sort of get a feel for what's really happening in school on a day-to-day basis on the front lines."
There are moments of real intimacy, such as when a student cried in the office of Principal John O'Brien. Another student floundered despite his mother being a constant presence at the school.
At a time when the words "education reform" are being debated nationally and locally, Gunther also said she wanted to avoid making political statements or taking a position like the documentary "Waiting for Superman."
"I think I'm actually not trying to make a political statement," she said. "One of the main ideas for me was we could make a film that would pose a bunch of questions and not provide answers. Because we're filmmakers, not educators."
Nonetheless, she and the teachers came up with the tagline for the movie: "it's bigger than school."
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