Poster for documentary 'American Teacher'

Poster for the documentary
American Teacher

Whether it’s Joan Rivers in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work or Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s indelible Grizzly Man, the profile documentary works because it can tell a story about a person like no other. But on the other end of the spectrum, telling the story of someone who’s typical is one of the hardest kind to pull off in documentary work.

The form implies representativeness, that the person in the film speaks for all other people like him or her. These representative profile documentaries hinge on whether you can learn about all people through one (or a few). These types of films also carry considerable risk for the filmmaker: If an audience can’t generalize from the subject, it’s left with nothing else, and the film fails.

Vanessa Roth’s new documentary American Teacher takes the risk, choosing four teachers to speak on behalf of the country’s 3.2 million teachers. With the math stacked against it, can an audience get a complete picture from such a tiny sample?

An answer is found in the core of art. Novels and fiction films are the antithesis of statistics and news reports. They zoom in on a person or small group of people rather than letting the story be told by cold numbers. You can read statistics connected to an event — The Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, or 9/11 — and feel nothing, or you can surface characters who make the event connect, be it in the multi-Oscar winner Life is Beautiful, the journalistic work Common Ground or the novel Netherland (possibly to be made into a film).

Roth, an Academy Award-winning producer for the 2007 documentary short Freeheld, comes from a lineage of such storytelling. Her father, Eric Roth, wrote the screenplay of the filmic Everyman, Forrest Gump, whose main character walks through the major events of the late 20th century as a voice of decency and good intention. But Vanessa Roth has chosen here to find the Everymen among the real and complex people out in the world. And that’s a taller order.

In films such as Sarah Klein’s The Good Mother, the subjects are taken (I abhor the word “casting” in documentaries) from a narrow sample: women in a Mother-of-the-Year competition. The same goes for Matt Ogen’s Confessions of a Superhero, about the lives of four superhero impersonators. On the other hand, James Moll’s stunning 1998 doc The Last Days picks five of the millions who survived the Nazi death camps. The art, in essence, begins with the selection.

For Roth, there were 104,857,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 American Teachers she could have made, according to my online permutations calculator. Aging Out, which explored three adolescents in foster care making the transition to adulthood and on which Roth was co-director, had similarly daunting options.

Some filmmakers in these situations have the luxury of winnowing. A long list, a short list, finalists (with alternates). Some start with multiple subjects and eliminate in the edit. And some see their hopefuls fall by the wayside through the legalities of permissions and releases.

Half of the battle was won for Roth by the film’s source material. It, along with The Teacher Salary Project, is based on the book Teachers Have It Easy, written by Dave Eggers (Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Nínive Calegari and Daniel Moulthrop. Two of the teachers, Roth says, came right out of the book. Two others were found through a combination of suggestions and intuition.

In other films, Roth says she’s begun filming with more than the number of subjects she’d end with. But here, the right people had to come first. She sought subjects who were “captivating people to watch” and who together shared the collective experiences of the nation’s teachers. She sorted through letters and video diaries from prospective subjects and iterated from there.

“It wasn’t like we knew at the start we wanted to shoot four people from four different places. One person came up after we’d started shooting another, and another came up after that.”

The teachers also had to be changing. After all, characters need story arcs. She ultimately found one young teacher expecting her first child, juggling family while playing a pivotal role for her first-grade students.

“I had tried hard to find someone starting a family, because I wanted something to unfold over the year,” she says.

Another was working extra jobs to afford his chosen profession.

“It’s absurd,” Roth says, “that our teachers are cutting our grass or working at Best Buy.”

The teachers are in Texas, Brooklyn, San Francisco and New Jersey. They went to Harvard, North Texas, UMass. They have taught 6, 11, 15 and 20 years. But they are not meant to comprise a case study or demographic artifact. As much as those of us with children think we know our teachers, Roth finds something deeper, showcasing in her four subjects the hopes, aspirations, sacrifice and commitment of teachers across the country.

Roth, in bios, describes herself as an advocate as well as an artist, which makes sense. American Teacher is a piece of reportage as well as a piece of advocacy that aims at the nation’s education woes and how an investment in teachers could turn it around.

“I think the film we ended up with was true to the vision we started with, but I think to get there we went on all kinds of paths,” Roth says. “An earlier cut was less about profiling people and more about experts… It took a bit of massaging to get it back to what I initially hoped it would be.”

Is American Teacher the definitive word on the teaching profession? The math says no, but their stories do effectively represent.

American Teacher opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30 and continues playing at festivals and community screenings through the rest of the year. Visit The Teacher Salary Project for screening information.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.