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My “Academy Awards” for Best Educational Documentaries

February 25, 2014

I love movies and have always envied Academy Award voters. So here's my chance! I am giving out my own Edutopia version of the 2014 Academy Awards for Educational Documentaries.

And since this is the first time I'm doing this, I'm taking the liberty of extending eligibility to 2012 films as well. It seems unfair to bypass recent excellent films still playing in 2014.

Following are my Educational Documentary Academy Awards for 2014. I've watched over a dozen this year, a comment itself on the proliferation of educational documentaries. These are my favorites.

Special Recognition Award:

This film is a knockout, and in using the trials of a small-town high school basketball team struggling to win a single game, it could be considered an educational film. But it transcends the genre in its story about the lives of adolescents in a small town fighting for economic and social survival. It does so with an intimacy that brings these kids' lives to us starkly, touchingly. It is a haunting film that I plan to review in depth in a later blog.

I would also like to give a Special Award for Distribution and Promotion to ITVS, the Independent Television Service, for its Independent Lens and POV series. Four of the best films I've selected were promoted and distributed by these two series, both through community showings and on PBS. ITVS consistently provides us all with accessibility to exceptional documentaries.

Best Editing:
Jeff Johns for Go Public

As editor of this film, Johns did a superb job of effectively integrating footage from 50 different camcorders that capture one day in 50 different school locations in Pasadena, California, creating one powerful, cohesive whole

Best Male Student in a Lead Role:
Eduardo Corona in The Graduates

Eduardo's journey from gangbanger to role model, in an environment in which almost everything dictates that he'll end up being a drug dealer, is extraordinary. His openness and articulateness would be hard to match for any Hollywood actor.

Best Female Student in a Lead Role:
Chastity Salas in The Graduates

Her charisma and her successful struggle to take care of her homeless family, excel in her academics, handle all of this with grace and courage, get admitted to college, and then deliver a memorable graduation speech, make her deserving of this award.

Best Educator in a Supporting Role:
Emily Task in The Graduates

It's Task's mentoring that is critical to Chastity overcoming the many obstacles she faces. Cris Yanov in many ways plays a similar role for Eduardo in the same film and is the close runner-up.

Best Educator in a Leading Role:
James O'Brien in The New Public

O'Brien is the gutsy, accessible and creative principal who started the Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School. His inspiring, tough and warmly supportive leadership made his selection an easy one.

Best Director:
Jyllian Gunther, for The New Public

Gunther wins this award for establishing a relationship of trust with teachers, students and parents that made it possible to capture a multitude of intimate moments that are rarely caught on screen. Bernardo Ruiz, for similar reasons, runs a close second in this category for scene after scene in his film The Graduates.

Best Educational Film Series:
A Year at Mission Hill

This film by Tom and Amy Valens was presented as a series of episodes on Edutopia. It effectively captures the life of a very special school. I look forward to seeing the edited one-hour version that is presently in production.

Best Film (The Envelope, Please . . .)

And now my choice for the Best Educational Documentary of the last two years! The five nominees are:

The New Public

As I wrote in an earlier blog, this story of a small public high school in Brooklyn is not just a good educational film. It transcends the genre in its capturing of the lives and human drama of educators, kids and parents. This film has an emotional impact because of its extraordinarily intimate scenes and the way the viewer connects to each of the featured individuals.

The Graduates

This two-part film is also extremely powerful in its capturing the stories of six Latino teens from across the country and the obstacles they have to overcome in order to attend college or follow other routes to leading successful lives. There are kids featured in this film that have never been matched by any mainstream fictional film about education.

Brooklyn Castle

One of my favorites of 2012, this film focuses on five members of the chess team at a poorly-funded inner-city junior high school, I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, where 65 percent of the students live below the Federal poverty level. The school leads the nation in scholastic chess and, as the warmly engaging principal says, "At this school, the geeks, they are the athletes!" It is a unique and memorable film.

Go Public: A Day in the Life of an American School District

Fifty different video cameras are used to document one day in the life of the Pasadena (California) Unified School District. What results is a collage that captures the zeitgeist of American public education. Given the 50 different directors working in 50 different settings, this could have been a mess, but the combination of great footage and exceptional editing creates a powerful film. (See VideoAmy's Five-Minute Film Festival featuring a selection of shorts from the project.)

American Promise

This film has already won an award at the Sundance Film Festival. It covers 13 years in the lives of two middle-class African-American students, best friends, and their parents in Brooklyn, New York, as they go through Dalton, a highly prestigious private school. Chronicling their very divergent paths from kindergarten through high school, American Promise goes beyond the genre of educational films in looking at issues of race, class and opportunity. (My fellow Edutopia blogger Jose Vilson recently posted about this.)

And my Edutopia Academy Award for Best Film goes to both The Graduates and The New Public. This was too close to call for me. They are equally superior, so I took the easy way out. And as someone always says at the Academy Awards show, "All of these films were deserving of an award!"

Now please chime in with your picks, and feel free to add a category or two.

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