Multiculturalism, outcasts and superheros

Posted by in Doc Side, Writing

This article originally appeared in POV Magazine, Issue 80, Winter 2010.

To speak truth to power is a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters – and furthermore (another important qualification) it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. – Noam Chomsky, quoted in Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization.

Docs in School / Docs on School

A recently fired professor, McGill University’s Norman Cornett, tells me that “You can’t change the institution, but I have an ethical and moral responsibility to do what I can to make the classroom a better learning environment.” Since documentary is the most committed cinematic agent of change, following Professor Cornett’s lead let’s dispatch the incontestable: documentaries are increasingly used as teaching tools in classrooms from Paris to Pittsburgh to Powell River. However, there is a much less examined topic—a curious flip side to the discussion of educating with documentary—and that is documenting education.

As a space of inquiry and discovery, both documentary cinema and education have a lot in common. In the best sense, critical questions are presented to engaged audiences and students, who draw their conclusions and expand their intellectual capacity based on the representation of facts, arguments and observations conveyed by teachers, course material, fellow students and screened media (including docs). Perhaps a less celebratory aspect of this union of communication and knowledge relates to both documentary and formal education’s evil-twins, propaganda and authoritativeness. Docs and pedagogues can shut down discovery and close the doors of critical inquiry by—among other things—spoon-feeding audiences manufactured dogma and self-serving rhetoric. Regardless of the process or outcome, the binding ties are there – concords that cut to crucial considerations around communication, community and epistemology.

Documentary has been seen as a potential vehicle for breaking through the anti-democratic yolk of institutional oppression

Documentary’s relationship with education is historic, beginning in the ‘40s (National Film Board of Canada news shorts in the classroom for instance) and is still potent as the strong-arm media deployed in high schools, colleges, and universities, all of which are situated in an increasingly visual communications world. This institutional linkage has been theorized by several astute academics, such as Zoë Druick. More recently documentary has been seen as a potential vehicle for breaking through the anti-democratic yolk of institutional oppression by opening up polyvalent counter-narrative and radical, alternative education spaces in the classroom and beyond (Patricia Zimmermann and Thomas Waugh come to mind).

Yet, there is an overlooked aspect to the commended and cursed documentary-education tango – the obverse coordinate of documentaries on education. In an era when issue-fatigue has become a nagging problem for documentary filmmakers, (oil-fatigue, pornography-fatigue, war-fatigue, food-fatigue and water-fatigue are among recent market-flooding examples), education has emerged as a focal point that has yet to tire out distributors, sales agents, curators and programmers.

Recently a spattering of films have appeared in the market/public sphere that concentrate on that very space where documentary has been historically dispensed. Among these educational endeavours are the gems Etre et avoir (Nicolas Philibert, 2002), Entre les murs (Laurent Cantet, 2008), which is not precisely a documentary but more on that later, Professor Norman Cornett: ‘Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?’ (Alanis Obomsawin, 2009) , La Classe de Madame Lise (Sylvie Groulx, 2006), Ten9Eight: Shoot for the Moon (Mary Mazzio, 2009), The Cartel (Bob Bowdon, 2010), Two Million Minutes (Chad Heeter, 2007), and the follow-up from the director of the prosaic An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim, 2010). As media interventions these documentaries offer departure points from (or variations of) the stock Hollywood fiction narrative of the (often white) teacher who “discovers” the buried talents and intellect of marginalized (immigrant) kids of colour and saves them from themselves through inventive and feisty interpretations of traditional Western pedagogical practices.

These education docs engage with issues involving learning, institutions, pedagogy, and the diverse social, cultural, economic and political dynamics of education systems in France, USA, and Canada, respectively. They highlight the important intersection of communication and knowledge, where documentaries are not just tools for educating, but commentaries and interventions on education as well.

Entre les murs & La Classe de Madame Lise

Both France and Canada have seen media attention turn to the topic of immigration and multiculturalism, with varied interpretations and interrogations ranging from moral panic to public inquiries into the liberal elite fairytale of “reasonable accommodation.” Unfortunately much of the debate has been shaped by racism and concerns around perceived “threats” from leaky immigration policies.

Between headlines describing burning police cars in the suburbs of Paris and towns in Quebec outlawing public stonings one finds the intimate and more empathic stories that can only be told in the documentary form. Two of these interrogations have snuck into the space of the classroom, one in France and one in Quebec, and offer glimpses of real existing multiculturalism with all its warts and rainbows: the diverse ethnicities and personalities that make up the students in classes in both those sites. Unlike their mainstream news counterparts, these renderings of multiculturalism-in-action urge us not toward chauvinism but toward understanding and celebrating the nuanced, complex and often prickly nexus of difference and community in the space of organized learning.

Entre les murs

Entre les murs (marketed in the English world as The Class) is technically not a documentary, but I’ve included it here because it not only fits excellently with the other films discussed, but because its hybrid form contributes to the ongoing discussion around the problems of categorization. The film is a social-realist cinematic version of the semi-autobiographical novel by French educator Francois Bégaudeau. Edging close to the “actuality” the documentary genre champions, Bégaudeau plays the teacher in the film and his actual students perform under their own names. Much of the “action” is organic, based on a collaborative script designed by the filmmakers and students, and veering into improvisation on several turns.

Entre les murs is a finely crafted film that focuses on a specific learning/teaching space: that of a teacher working with a diverse group of students with various linguistic, cultural, and pedagogical temperaments. Ample screen time is given to the exchanges in the classroom between Bégaudeau and the students, exposing the trials and tribulations of a committed pedagogue tirelessly building an educational space of participation and humanistic positivity. Superbly edited with tremendous performances from the student-actors, the film articulates a quiet hope in its representation of communication and understanding, but is ultimately a realist narrative in that there is no happy ending, only another trying day of learning and teaching.

La classe de Madame Lise

Across the pond, another interior space of multiculturalism and education is explored in the observational documentary La Classe de Madame Lise by Sylvie Groulx. Winner of the Prix Jutra for best documentary in 2006, the film shares school time with a classroom full of six year-olds in Montreal’s multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Parc Extension. According to Groulx, it is now the largest primary school in Quebec, with nearly 1,000 pupils who represent around 80 nationalities. Groulx spent the entire school year with the wee learners and documents their challenges, efforts, and progress in the educational dynamic. Beautifully shot with and pieced together, the film has the effect of placing the viewer in one of the tiny desks in the room. There, privy to a special space parents seldom see, we watch kids awkwardly speak in their adopted language of French, eking out their new communicative terrain: where they’re from, how they place their origins on a multiply-pinned map of the world, and how they become a community bound by the sameness of language, without the dissolution of difference.

For Groulx, the year-long experience with a crew of four (chosen for their parental affinity to the age-group documented) was transformative: “My way of looking at immigration, education, teaching and learning changed from making this documentary.” Why documentary? “Documentary lets you be close to the people, not just looking from the outside. You can read all kinds of information about education and/or immigration, but a documentary is a discovery for so many viewers who have not, and cannot get the opportunity to be in the classroom.”
La Classe de Madame Lise is a film born out of a desire to understand and document the changing natures of education and immigration in Quebec. Groulx’s film doesn’t dissolve nationalist tensions that stem from fear of the invasion of “the Other” by propping up hegemonic assimilation, but rather shows the power of the educational space to help forge a community—in this case one mostly composed of very young offspring of immigrants—who maintain their diversity while finding a common and fortified ground for communication and knowledge production. It is a charming and fascinating look at the changing role of educators and the international space of education in Quebec.

Waiting for Superman

The film Time Magazine described as a “dispatch from a revolution” is the newest and most visible documentary on education to emerge from the American battlefield of education reform. The big budget reality check does have its share of glitches, among them non-stop narration, simplification of a complex problem (all fingers point to unions and bad teachers), traditional vision of pedagogy (championed in an insulting animated sequence where the teacher pours knowledge into students’ heads), and lack of comparative analysis to other countries excelling in education.

Yet, Guggenheim’s well-funded and well-made “big issue” documentary is incessantly powerful and moving. Unlike other docs that drill down to one particular site, usually a classroom, and parlay the synecdoche into a larger socio-political commentary, Waiting for Superman is a systems-oriented film, interrogating the larger structural picture of the ailing US educational system. Cleverly animated info-graphics make sense of hard-to-believe statistics and the often-unreachable political is made personal by way of the film’s central narrative threads – four kids (and their parents) who desperately try to improve their educational lot, but in the end remain heartbreakingly impotent to the winds of chance and the violence of bureaucracy.

Waiting for Superman ultimately paints a disturbing and for many convincing portrait of a declining American public institution whose history of decay is caused by the very nature of its publicness.

The documentary has financial support from stakeholder privatization-pushing institutions, including the Gates Foundation, and has caused quite a stir in Obamaland. Many critics have interpreted this sad story of a crumbling institution that cares more about the adults than it does the children as an outright assault on the teachers’ unions in the US. Guggenheim certainly lands the blame card on the unions, chastising them for their stubborn opposition to proposed rule changes that would make it easier to fire bad teachers, whilst putting his optimistic fervour behind Charter schools, which operate independently of the entrenched system. This is the magic bullet that Guggenheim smuggles into the larger narrative of dilapidation who will save the schools? The market of course! Indeed, “Superman” is meant to be a metaphor for a fantasy rescue character who will never come, but the real superhero this slick doc puts its weight behind is privatization.

This aspect of the film has been thoroughly critiqued, and it is perhaps what makes Waiting for Superman so insipid: it is a top-quality documentary that had funding thrown at it by purveyors of privatized education who got exactly what they paid for in the form of a fabulously surreptitious vehicle for winning over the hearts and minds of the American public. It does this by playing to the heart with emotional manipulation while obfuscating the “mind” aspect with compromised data.

The film ultimately paints a disturbing and for many convincing portrait of a declining American public institution whose history of decay is caused by the very nature of its publicness. Even my cinema-going companion Tyrell, a fourteen year-old confronting his own challenges at school, found the film to be eye-opening. “We’ve got it good here in Canada,” he said to me as we left the theatre.

Comparatively it would seem things are pretty good, even in Harper-plagued Canada. Yet trouble lurks around every pedagogical corner, as one doc that follows the firing of a good teacher reveals.

Professor Norman Cornett: ‘Since when do we divorce the right answer from an honest answer?’

This National Film Board of Canada documentary might seem to be a departure for Alanis Obomsawin, whose filmography is highlighted by visual insurrections into the history of colonization in Canada, First Nations culture and acts of resistance. While the turn to education at an “A-list” Canadian university surprised many followers of Obomsawin’s work, Professor Norman Cornett does continue her inspired and rigorous thematic of deconstructing oppression in its various dressings.

Obomsawin’s newest offering examines the ruthless sacking of a popular veteran professor by McGill University in 2008. Instead of searching for reasons behind the unceremonious dismissal of the unorthodox prof, Obomsawin looks at his pedagogical philosophy and practice. It is curious that the film does not explore the real reason behind Cornett’s firing. To whit: after fifteen years of facilitating his “dialogic sessions” in the classroom, McGill neglected to renew Cornett’s contract on the heels of sessions that engaged in the divisive debate over Palestine/Israel, including a field trip Cornett’s class took to an Artists Against Apartheid exhibition.

That said, as a doc focused on education, Professor Norman Cornett is an instructive film. Despite some shortcomings such as the near-evacuation of the issue of Israel and related academic freedom/censorship, the film reveals the dynamic space of the university classroom, steered by the impassioned Cornett, who screens documentaries and invites musicians to perform and guests to speak in class, followed by student “reflections” and group discussions. (Former students as well as Obomsawin and her crew capture these dialogic sessions on video.)

The exciting “space of inquiry,” as Cornett calls it, is the antithesis of the orthodox university classroom: students are encouraged to exercise total freedom to say what they think, on paper or in the dialogues that follow the films, talks and performances. Cornett believes that learning takes place in a community, within a spirit of “anything goes” collaboration. This runs contrary to the beliefs of many university Board of Governors members, who see higher education as a processing factory where knowledge is unidirectional, emanating from institution to teacher to student. Radical pedagogues argue that this kind of system prepares students increasingly to function in the market system and decreasingly to think critically and act responsibly. This amounts to, according to Cornett’s lawyer Julius Grey, “The extreme cruelty of our market society.”

As spaces of inquiry, documentary and education are of course concerned with that elusive and controversially subjective kernel of human knowledge – truth. Unlike many documentaries, Cornett doesn’t believe in “taking sides” on the issues he tackles in his classroom, and instead facilitates communal learning, where each individual comes to their own conclusions. When asked about truth-seeking by way of documentary, Cornett responds: “The role of documentary in the university classroom is not to tell the truth but to create a space where they can seek the truth themselves – come to terms with it on their own.”

The documentary Professor Norman Cornett certainly illustrates how this ethos is echoed in the educator as well. Cornett does not act as a truth-purveyor or knowledge-server, but as a guide who takes students on adventures of discovery, reflection and critical inquiry. He is portrayed as a non-conformist architect of educational space, facilitating a knowledge community guided by the principles described by all the students interviewed in the documentary: creativity, community, dialogue, desire to learn, participation, and honesty.

But the space designed didn’t fit into the neatly trimmed folds of a conservative institution like McGill (nor would it likely fit in at any university in Canada), and Obomsawin’s film bears witness to this conflict. What unfolds is a dialogue, through interviews with students, educators, Cornett and others, that critically examines the role of the university and the role of educators within one of society’s oldest institutions. Students in the documentary complain of being merely a number at McGill, where Cornett, years later, remembers their name, their family histories, interests and more. As one student puts it: “It means something to me that I’m not a number. I’m a student. I’m a human being.” Professor Norman Cornett makes the grade as a celebration of radical pedagogy and as a critical inquiry into institutional conformity and educational oppression.


Documentary assimilates knowledge that helps us answer the question: How do I think globally and act locally?

Cornett reminds me that education is a form of communication. Further, the documentary is “a vehicle for communication,” and as such it “assimilates knowledge that helps us answer the question: How do I think globally and act locally?” As an educator and a docophile, Cornett is used to asking these kinds of tough questions. He objects to the idea of truth as a building block for either context—documentary or educational—and sees the intersection of the two, in a social and communal setting, as a space of inquiry, discovery, reflection and interrogation. The space of learning. “We are in university to ask questions and consider them, not to supply answers.” As Cornett puts it, “Documentary not only gives a vision, but provides a narrative. We peel back the layers of meaning a film images out of a narrative.” Thus education is process of discovery, and documentary contributes to that process in unique and productive ways – both as a tool for teaching and dialogue and as a dialogue in of itself.

It is crucial and critical dialogue that can bring a changed and reinvigorated understanding of the world and facilitate a different education on a range of fundamental issues and concerns for society. In the case of the films discussed, that concern is the all-too-often overlooked subject of education. These films, and others that look at how we learn, teach, and produce knowledge, show us education in action. By doing so, they help us see some of the most significant spaces of how we come to know. As John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.” Building critical, creative knowledge communities around both—seeing and knowing—will strengthen documentary and improve education.

Trust me, I saw it in a documentary. Or was it in a class?

Photo of Professor Norman Cornett courtesy of Svetla Turnin.