Put one notion to rest: The Lottery is not a poor cousin of Waiting for Superman. In some respects it’s a purer and more honest film, ferocious in its anger. And although an NPR reviewer called it “a devastating piece of propaganda,” the filmmaker begs to disagree.
Madeleine Sackler, not yet 30 years old, says The Lottery simply tells the stories of the lives of four families as they struggle to find better educational opportunities for their children. “That word, propaganda, has a negative connotation,” she said. “This movie is true.”
The Lottery follows four families in a poor part of New York City, a neighborhood with failing schools but also one that is becoming gentrified. As poorer residents see wealthy (generally white) families moving in, they end up fighting for what is theirs, and that means, ironically, that they end up fighting to keep their failing schools.
Sackler has sympathy for the families, whether they are pro- or anti-charter. “There’s a lot of anger and fear of gentrification,” she told me. “It’s about race and class, and people are scared.”
The Lottery has a hero: Eva Moscowitz, the fiery founder of a small network of charter schools. These schools are so popular that admission is by lottery—a public event—and applicants have only a 1-in-7 chance of winning.
Like Waiting for Superman, The Lottery has its villains, including teacher union leader Randi Weingarten. In this movie, the union wields remarkable power over local politicians, who are depicted as craven shills doing the union’s bidding and trying to prevent Moscowitz’s charter schools from expanding to give more children the opportunity to attend.
Critics have said the film is one-sided, which it is because we see everything from the point of view of either the charter hopefuls or the charter schools. That’s because the regular public schools and the UFT refused to participate, Sackler says. She doesn’t see a conspiracy here. “They probably said no because it was my first film, and they had never heard of me,” she told me.
Now they know who she is and may be wishing they had cooperated.
In one remarkable scene, a local politician who is Hispanic is seen berating Moscowitz, who is white. She calls Moscowitz a carpetbagger who does not live in Harlem. When Moscowitz replies that she has lived in Harlem for many years, the politician basically calls her a liar and demands to know her street address. Moscowitz calmly declines to give her address out of concern for her children’s safety, while the politician raves on with no concern for accuracy.
At another point in The Lottery, the camera comes upon a noisy demonstration against charter expansion. As the adults wave their signs, we learn that not only are the protestors not from Harlem, they are being paid to protest! Of that scene, Sackler told me, “We got lucky. We were on our way to film yet another public hearing when we came across the protest. Protests are much more fun to film than hearings, so we parked and began filming. Then I asked questions, and more questions.”
As with Waiting for Superman, this movie ends with the lottery. We watch the four families (a remarkably diverse bunch) squirm and pray. In making the film, Sackler actually followed six families. One grew “shy,” she said, and another moved away.
How did a child of privilege raised in Greenwich, Connecticut grow up to be an activist filmmaker? Madeleine Sackler went to Duke, where she majored in science. “When I was a senior I learned how to edit, mostly to help out my roommate, and I loved it,” she told me. And she said she was curious about the achievement gap, which everyone seemed to believe was caused by poverty, with great parents being the variable that allowed some kids to succeed.
Maybe that’s the key: curiosity. That, and a willingness to ask questions and go wherever the answers lead.
The Lottery, which was released well before Waiting for Superman, has all but disappeared from view, as the latter sucked up all the oxygen. Sackler seems unconcerned. In our interview she professed not to have seen Davis Guggenheim’s film (“I’m looking forward to it,” she said, ‘The more, the merrier.”).
Although its theatrical runs (several weeks in New York and four other cities) have ended, The Lottery is still available. You can buy it at Walmart, Amazon and iTunes or watch it on Time-Warner and Comcast (on demand video).
She said that it cost about $300,000 to make the film. So far, she told me, her investors have not recouped their costs. “I think we will,” she said, “But the goal was to get people engaged. We spend too much time talking about problems, not enough working on solutions.”
She is staying in touch with the families and reports that the kids are doing well. While the film doesn’t end happily for everyone, today all four kids are either in one of Moscowitz’s charter schools or the local gifted and talented academy, a public magnet school.
Sackler has a day job, as a freelance editor. When we spoke, she was finishing a video biography of Fernando Valenzuela for ESPN. She plans on making another socially conscious film but isn’t sure what the topic will be.
The Lottery [Official website]