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Behind The Schoolhouse Doors
Award-winning documentary looks at public education
through the eyes offirst-year teachers.
Special to the Jewish News
with Guggenheim about public educa-
tion in America, documentary film-
making and his Jewish background.
very year, the public waits
JN: The film's focus on new teachers
with bated breath to find
is compelling. What motivated you to
out which movies have been
make a documentary on this topic?
nominated for Academy
DG: I was always interested in public
Awards. But, while feature films and
education, and it's a problem right
lead actors are headline news, docu-
now. It's part of our democracy; you
mentaries are usually relegated to a
have a right to a good education no
brief mention in the final paragraph.
Since 1998, however, nonfiction
matter what your background is.
When my son was born, I started to
filmmakers have had their own presti-
gious film festival. Founded by docu-
worry about where I was going to send
him to school.
mentary photographer Nancy Buirski,
Sending him off to a good school
formerly foreign picture editor at the
New York Times, the Full Frame
because I could afford it didn't sit
Festival takes place each
spring at a historic the-
ater in downtown
With a notable board
of directors — includ-
ing filmmakers Martin
Scorsese, Ken Burns
and Jonathan Demme
— the festival's laud-
able mission is to
"[champion] the docu-
mentary filmmaker as
an important witness to
A touring program of A scene from Davis
films from the festival's
first five years, "Best of
right with me. I felt like there are too
Full Frame," comes to Ann Arbor's
many people who buy their way into a
new Madstone Theaters Feb. 28-
March 2. Located in Briarwood Mall,
good education and turn their back on
[the public] schools. You really start
Madstone Theaters is part of a nation-
thinking about this when you have a
al chain of art-house cinemas dedicat
ed to bringing independent films to
kid. It's where your politics and your
ideals. clash with reality.
Among the films to be screened is
Davis Guggenheim's The First Year, a
JN: So would you consider yourself
compelling look at novice public-school to be an activist as well as a director?
DG: I didn't want the film to be polit-
teachers. Guggenheim, who is married
ical. I wanted it to be apolitical
to actress Elisabeth Shue, explores the
because the education world is so
struggles and the triumphs of five ideal-
istic educators as they attempt to make
You're either for testing" or "against
a difference in the Los Angeles public
testing." You're either "for charters" or
schools — known as some of the
toughest schools in America.
you're "against charters." I didn't want it
to be about that. I wanted it to focus on
In addition to its inclusion in the
the human element of good education.
Full Frame Festival, The First Year was
the recipient of a George Foster
JN: We get a very intimate portrait of
Peabody Award, considered the most
the young teachers who are the subjects
prestigious award in electronic media.
The Jewish News recently talked
of the film. How did you find them?
DG: It was a week before school, and
we tried to find as many teachers as
we could who were potential candi-
dates. We found about 50.
After [we narrowed it down to 10],
it was about who was willing to open
themselves up completely and who
could express themselves. It's one thing
to have the experience, but it's another
thing to be able to articulate it.
JN: The five that you follow are
impressive. It's fascinating watching
them deal firsthand with the "sys-
tem." It seems like the camera's
always in the right place at the right
time. How did you manage that?
DG: Most documentaries shoot
between 10 and 20 days. We shot 110
days. We were deep in their lives.
On a given day, we could be in three
or four different schools. When you
make most movies, you know where
it's going — there's a script. And this
had no script, and no real premise
other than "what is it like?"
JN: Was it the full immersion of a
teacher who has never taught before?
DG: Yes, the audience definitely gets a
sense of what it's like. But there's a
complicated emotion at the end of the
film. As a viewer, you feel somewhat
jaded but also optimistic. And you
wonder what the filmmakers want vou
JN: So, what do the filmmakers want
you to think?
DG: The filmmakers don't want you
to think anything. In a lot of docu-
mentaries, there's a secret agenda. And,
actually, we've had hundreds of screen-
ings of this film.
I've heard people say we over-
romanticize the job. And I've heard
people say that we've made the job so
intimidating and awful that no one
would ever want to teach.
I love the fact that it has that full
range of reaction. I think a good docu-
mentary makes the audience draw
their own conclusion. I welcome a
debate — as long as it fires people up.
JN: Not all of your work is as contro-
versial. You have a lot of directing
credits. And many of them — like
episodes of 24, Alias, NYPD Blue and