Waiting for Superman and its director, Davis Guggenheim, are currently embroiled in a discussion about whether or not the staging of a scene purposely misled its audience.
The scene occurs near the end of the film when Maria, Francisco's mother, (both are pictured above) tours the Harlem Success Academy, a charter school whose long waiting list requires that she enter her son into a lottery so that he might attend. Wandering through its hallways, she remarks: "I don't care if we have to wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning in order to get there by 7:45, then that's what we're going to do."
Today's New York Times reveals that when the scene was actually filmed, the lottery had already taken place and Maria knew that Francisco hadn't made the cut, a re-creation that Guggenheim defended since his cameras hadn't been able to accompany her the first time around. His response:
“In the case of Maria, we met her at the school but the cameras weren’t there, so we asked her to go back and tour the school. And as a filmmaker, I wanted to see her reaction to the school, and her genuine emotion. So that scene is real; her reaction, her talking to kids touring the school, is how she would play it.”
Recently, A.O. Scott recently explored the changing landscape of documentaries, by asking:
How much voice-over? How much vérité? To re-enact or not? — have a way of opening thorny ethical and philosophical problems. Is the documentarian’s job to show stuff happening or to listen to people talking? To disclose, faithfully and without overt artifice, the way the world is, or to try to explain why it is that way?
Scott argues that as a documentary, Waiting for Superman falls into yet another category by virtue of compelling its viewers at the end of the film to do something, to act upon the injustice of failing schools. "But it is only if they are movies first, attentive to the integrity of their stories, the cogency of their images and the coherence of their ideas, that they can hope to be anything else."
Granted, in some ways it's a minor betrayal of trust—an ethical lapse in service of compelling storytelling. But does it make you lose faith in Guggenheim's role as narrator? And do we expect documentarians in general to be more explicit about the re-enactment or re-ordering of a scene?
Image via Waiting for Superman.