‘Lottery’ Director — ‘When Will We Prioritize the Children?’

If we are systematically providing low-income children with a sub-par education, how can we expect to break the cycle of poverty?

I never considered myself much of an activist; I was just a person who wanted to make a film. And when I saw a two-minute news clip of 5,000 parents packed into the Harlem Armory in 2008, crossing their fingers, praying, laughing for joy and crying with disappointment, I was intrigued by the possibility of telling their story.

A lottery was taking place, but it wasn’t for dollars. This was for a school called Harlem Success Academy, where parents simply wanted to send their children for kindergarten. I wondered why so many parents wanted this school that they had to hold a lottery, and I quickly discovered that this school was one of the highest performing in New York.

At its essence, my film "The Lottery" is a simple story about four families who want their children to have a better future, and the obstacles that stand in their way. It is the quintessential American Dream, but "The Lottery" raises the question, does it exist?

If we are systematically providing low-income children with a sub-par education, how can we expect to break the cycle of poverty? To raise college graduation levels? To compete globally? It is no longer a question that the U.S. has fallen behind – just this month, new PISA date shows that we are 23rd or 24th out of 30 countries in most subjects. In math, we are 29th.

Coming up with an idea for a film and actually making it are completely different, and it would be difficult to summarize the obstacles that we faced making "The Lottery." But it is interesting that many of the obstacles parallel those that face the public school system itself.

Politics, bureaucracy, special interests, and a general sense that schools are failing because of poverty and parents, not because of the schools themselves – all of these result in a system that changes at a glacial pace, and millions of students continue falling through the cracks year after year.

In our case, although we tried repeatedly, we were unable to film in traditional public schools, and we were unable to speak with representatives of the teacher’s union. In fact, at one point it looked like the union was going to sue us, apparently trying to prevent us from filming at Harlem Success because they shared a building with a traditional public school, claiming that we were filming their students and principal.

As it turns out, this is not abnormal: This fall, a staff member at Harlem Success was filming at a public hearing, like those in "The Lottery," and she was arrested after she refused to stop filming, stating that it was within her rights. It is terrifying to think that in this country, a film like "The Lottery" could have been shut down. Frankly, it is incredible that we were able to release the film theatrically in June 2010, just 12 months after wrapping the shoot.

Despite all of these obstacles and all of the obstacles that come with every film shoot – the financing and the scheduling; the crewing up and the finishing – the most difficult obstacles were emotional and personal. Over the three-month shoot, we grew very close to the families and we did everything we could to help make their lives easier. We drove one father from doctor appointment to doctor appointment, and as he was diagnosed with diabetes and learned how to use insulin, we looked after his child.

In another family’s apartment, we took photos to be used as evidence of a bedroom that was ravaged by an electrical fire because the building was not up to code, despite their continuous pleas to the landlord for repairs. We helped a child with his homework because his parents couldn’t understand the kindergarten level worksheet themselves. These were all part of the story that did not even make it into the film, but all of these challenges built our relationships, and I remain friends with the families today.

In the end, politics are secondary in my mind. My commitment is to those kids, and I would do anything to help improve their chances at getting access to a phenomenal school – and by phenomenal, I mean a school that I would send my own kids to. That should be the standard by which we evaluate every single school in this country.

It is easy to get mired in the debate between public versus charter, union versus non-union, but that is not the important question. The important question is: Will we prioritize the children?

The four children in "The Lottery" are adorable and full of promise, and they represent millions more children who may not be able to achieve their dreams because our society does not give them the tools to reach them. Charter or public, union or not, I hope that The Lottery is a reminder that children only go through school once, and that they need help from us, the adults, to make sure that every year counts.

I suppose the process of making "The Lottery" has made me into a bit of an activist, and to be honest, I struggle with that sometimes. I just wanted to make a beautiful film that told a great story, and then I found myself wanting to do more.

That may be the power of documentary filmmaking, and I will always be incredibly grateful for meeting such inspiring people and for having the opportunity to participate in what I consider the most meaningful movement of our generation.