Earlier this year, we introduced you to 27-year-old Madeleine Sackler, a former freelance editor turned documentarian, who, after watching news footage about an overcrowded elementary school lottery in Harlem, decided to make a film about it.
The Lottery, a feature-length documentary, follows four families as they go about attempting to secure a coveted spot in a choice school, will be shown later tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival.
After watching the film, Sackler answered a few questions.
GOOD: Your film is incredible and the families you chose to feature were absolutely heart wrenching in their struggle to make a better life for their children. Please explain how you found them.
MADELEINE SACKLER: Thank you. The families were incredibly gracious to share their homes and stories with us. I met them by attending information sessions that the school holds for prospective parents. I went to about a dozen sessions and met hundreds of parents. The list narrowed down very quickly because we needed access to their lives, jobs, homes, and a lot of people weren't able to do that.
G: How did you get this project funded?
MS: The same as any independent film (or most). We had a mix of investors.
G: The commentary in your film is a real who's who in the education reform world—Joel Klein, Geoffrey Canada, Cory Booker. Was it difficult to convince them to be interviewed on camera?
MS: One of the biggest challenges of making a documentary is scheduling, and we were very lucky that Chancellor Klein, Mayor Booker, Geoffrey Canada, and so many others gave us their time. I think they agreed to do it because they believe that this is a story that needs telling. For many years, they have known that there are schools all over the country that are closing the achievement gap, and they understand that the barrier to opening more great schools is often political. Also, all of the interviewees have been to many lotteries like the one in the film, and if you go to a lottery, the injustice of the situation is palpable. There is no reason that thousands of parents should be waitlisted for the schools that work and instead have to send their children to schools that have been failing children for generations. Unfortunately, we were not so successful in booking all of the interviews that we wanted—the teacher's union, for instance, didn't end up providing us an interview, so we were not able to include their perspective.
G: Prior to filming, were you in favor of charter schools?
MS: I didn't feel one way or another about any type of school, and I still don't. What I cared about was the fact that 56 percent of African-American fourth graders are functionally illiterate. So to me, what is important is not whether or not a school is charter or public—the important point is that a school brings that number towards zero. There are many, many schools able to do that and in so doing, prove that this crisis is a fixable one. Since I started researching this project, dozens of people have told me that statistics like that one exist because of culture, poverty, or because some parents don't care about education. I met hundreds (and saw thousands) of parents desperate to get their children a better education than the one being provided by their district school. I think that public education is at a crossroads, and the question is, are we going to provide parents with the choice of where to send their children to school, or are we going to go back to the time when the district-run school was their only option, even if it fails its kids.
G: Your film is sure to stir up some controversy. Namely, one of your film's heroes, Eva Moskowitz, who runs Harlem Success Academy, is not without her share of detractors. Her haunting testimony before New York's City Council is among the most compelling moments you captured. In deciding how to tell the story of the lottery, how careful were you to present both sides of the story (i.e. charter operators versus the teachers' union, etc.)?
MS: It's very easy to watch a documentary and say "they should have talked to this or that person," but filmmakers are limited to the story that they have access to. Going into the film, I was very committed to telling all sides of the story, but unfortunately the teacher's union was not willing to participate in the film. I began trying to schedule interviews with them from day one, but to no avail. We also tried to film in traditional public schools, but it turned out that it was easier to film in a maximum security prison than to film in a public school. We were prohibited by the contracts which required sign-off from many people. It's not exactly a transparent system.
G: Since your film is about a lottery, was the outcome what you had wished going into it. Did you anticipate some of your subjects would win while others would lose?
MS: I wanted everyone to win. If every family in the movie won the lottery that day, I would have been the happiest person in the world. It is heartbreaking to sit in a room where thousands of parents are relying on chance to get their children into the school of their choice. The stakes are incredibly high, and the parents know it. It could be the difference of their child learning to read by fourth grade, graduating from high school, going to college, or going to prison. And the odds were not good: Just one in seven children won the lottery that night.
G: Tell us a little about the cinematography and score.
MS: The movie was shot by Wolfgang Held, who's last film was Bruno. The score was composed by Tunde Adebimpe and Gerard Smith, two members of one of my favorite bands, TV on the Radio. It's their first score and it's beautiful.
G: This is your first film. What's next?
MS: Hopefully another film. I'm wrapped up in the release of The Lottery this summer, but I hope to begin working on a new project this fall.
G: Tonight's showing is sold out. How else can GOOD readers see your film?
MS: On June 8th, we're releasing the film for a one-day event on 100 screens nationwide, so people all over the country will be able to see The Lottery. After that, we have plans for longer theatrical releases in select cities, video on demand, and DVD.
To buy tickets and sign up for updates, visit the film's site here.