Docurama // 2001 // 80 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // May 26th, 2004
5 teachers. 180 Days. Our Children's Future.
The First Year is a valuable documentary because it is willing to closely examine the serious issues facing teachers and the school system in North America. It originally aired on PBS, and is now available on DVD thanks to New Video.
The First Year attempts to analyze the current shortage of teachers by looking at the situations faced by young teachers in urban schools throughout the United States. It follows five teachers through their struggles, successes, and failures in order to encourage awareness and promote discussion of social issues that affect the schools in North America.
The five teachers are Georgene Acosta, Geneviève DeBose, Joy Kraft-Watts, Nate Monley, and Maurice Rabb.
Director Davis Guggenheim does an excellent job of handling the issues that he is interested in during the short length of this documentary. It is not a subtle film, but he is calling us to pay attention to what is happening in our schools, and he has found some excellent subjects to do so with. Like many documentaries, it is completely biased, but since it is an impossible thing to avoid completely, I have respect for the way he goes right for the point he wants to make.
This film does not show what it's like for a first year teacher in a school for children of affluent families. Instead, it follows five teachers in their situations at a variety of schools in urban California. The children range from kindergarten to grade eleven, though, so it shows the issues that must be dealt with at various stages in the education process.
There are many incredible moments in The First Year. Each of the teachers has a particular student or situation that is especially troublesome during the year, and Guggenheim chose to spend enough time on these moments to develop these situations with depth and meaning. With so much going on, it would have been easy to gloss over these moments to get an overview of the situation of these schools, but the focus on the individual is one of the key points of the film. Each student and problem is different, and must be handled differently. When there are 38 students in your class, though, how can you possibly do what's needed in each of these situations?
Many of the most touching moments focus on the way the teachers deal with the students directly. One of the best of these is a conference with Geneviève DeBose, one of the teachers, a troubled boy, and his father. The camera captures every human element of the scene perfectly: the disappointment and love of the father, the shame of the son, and the embarrassment and caring of the teacher.
A number of other great moments happen when the teachers are alone. At one point, Maurice Rabb returns to his hometown, and visits a schoolyard there. The school has a full playground, surrounded by well-kept grass. This is a stark contrast from the school that he teaches at, where the playground consists of a fenced-in concrete yard. He cries as he watches the children playing, as he turns to the camera and says, "These kids look like my kids." It's a scene that highlights the differences between schools in suburbia and the inner city schools, but it does so without tossing up statistics, explaining, or preaching.
I was amazed by how natural the subjects were, considering that they had a camera in their faces during these personal and painful moments. The five teachers are especially good, only acknowledging the camera when they are speaking directly to it. This is also only possible due to the excellent camera work and editing by Davis Guggenheim. He is willing to approach many fascinating and controversial issues, without ever being preachy. His opinion is clear from the first frame, but it never feels forced. School violence is dealt with in the presentation about gangs in Nate Monley's grade five class, Joy Kraft-Watts shows her students videos dealing with homosexuality, and Georgene Acosta helps her ESL students talk to city council to get more funding for their program.
Guggenheim also manages to juggle perfectly the frightening truth about the state of the inner city schools and the hope that is given to these students by caring and passionate teachers. The situation is indeed grim, but these teachers have a tremendous impact on the lives of their students. It is through teachers like this that the situation in these schools will be turned around.
Considering its television origins, the The First Year looks and sounds quite good. It is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, and the picture is quite acceptable. Because it is so new, there is no reason that they could have not made an anamorphic transfer for the disc, however. The colors are rich and accurate, but the detail suffers. This is forgivable in the end, however, since it was all shot with natural light with a handheld camera.
The sound is quite excellent considering the way the footage has been filmed. The dialogue is always clear, even in scenes when several people are talking.
The disc is surprisingly well stocked with extras. The most significant extra is Teach, a 35-minute short film that uses the footage from The First Year to create a shorter, more upbeat promotional video for potential teachers. I was expecting Teach to be a sappy, shallow version of the full film, and I was pleasantly surprised. While the issues are less complex, it is still willing to address many of the troubles facing teachers in their first few years. It is presented in full frame, and would make an excellent video to show in high school or college classrooms.
There is a commentary track on The First Year featuring the five teachers. It is a good track, adding insight and additional stories to further describe their experiences. They keep mostly on track, and their banter is occasionally entertaining as well as informative. Also useful is an epilogue, which explains where these teachers have gone now, and what has happened to many of the students that were focused on in the film. A profile of each teacher is also included, which is not a profile as much as a summary of their accomplishments during the first year of teaching.
There are several minor problems that prevent The First Year from being what it could be. Although Guggenheim makes a point of dealing with a wide range of populations and issues, all of the students that are focused on through the year are boys. While I believe that most problem students are probably male, it would have been interesting to explore some of the issues that are unique to the girls in our school system.
Another problem is that the film is simply too short. Eighty minutes is not enough time to accomplish what Guggenheim attempts to do, and while it is a good documentary, the DVD format would allow for a much extended look at the first year of these five teachers. With the amount of footage that was filmed to make this project, it would have been nice to have access to more on this disc.
The only technical complaint I have about the disc (aside from the non-anamorphic video) is the lack of subtitles. The First Year deals with issues of immigrant communities that do not understand English, as well as students with disabilities. These audiences should not be excluded from the issues that are addressed in this film.
Minor complaints aside, The First Year is an excellent documentary that should be required viewing for students, parents, and anyone considering a career in teaching. It has been provided to us on a great disc, so go check it out.
Not guilty. Guggenheim has done an admirable job in dealing with the issues in the American school system, and left this judge wanting more.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 80 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Teacher Commentary
* Teach Promotional Video