The ‘Principal’ Goals of Tod Lending

| September 13, 2009

If a picture is worth more than a thousand words, then surely a film aiming for social reform is worth more than any amount of text. Yet only a precious few filmmakers have actually seen their films lead to tangible change in the world, and documentarian Tod Lending is one of them. As president and founder of the Chicago production company Nomadic Pictures, Lending has built an acclaimed body of work that often focuses on the daily struggles found in low-income urban communities. His Oscar-nominated feature documentary Legacy led to the creation and passing of The Legacy Act in 2003, which provides low-income housing to grandparents raising grandchildren.
His latest film is “The Principal Story”, which will air as part of the POV documentary series on PBS. It follows the stories of two Illinois principals, Tresa Dunbar of Chicago’s Nash Elementary and Kerry Purcell of Springfield’s Harvard Park Elementary. The vast majority of their students come from low-income families, and are under the constant threat of drugs and gang violence. Despite a host of obstacles, both women valiantly struggle to turn around their low-performing schools, and thus demonstrate the vitality of a dedicated principal in the current educational climate. “The Principal Story” premieres on the evening of Tuesday, Sept. 15 on PBS, and is accompanied by a national outreach program. Lending spoke with Film Monthly about the experience of taking on such an enormous project, the goals he hopes to achieve with it, and his own personal journey to becoming a filmmaker who makes a difference.
QUESTION: What attracts you to telling stories about people living in low-income urban communities?
TOD LENDING: Boy, that’s a tough question. I guess it comes from how I was raised, and what I feel my purpose is on earth, which is to make a difference in some way. I’ve been immersed in telling stories that take place in low-income African American communities, and looking at all the issues that entails [including] poverty, education, public housing, welfare, incarceration, addiction [etc.]. I feel that stereotypes need to be broken in terms of how African Americans are perceived in the media, specifically those living in low-income families, and I’m just very comfortable in that community. I feel like I can tell their stories from a very intimate and personal level.
QUESTION: Since you became a Journalism Fellow in Child and Family Policy at the University of Maryland, how have your journalistic instincts effected your work in film?
TOD LENDING: Huh, that’s interesting, I’ve never been asked about that before. It’s funny, I’m actually a college dropout. I went to college for a couple years and it became clear to me that I wasn’t going to need a degree in order to make films. So I was focused early on about what I wanted to do, and this opportunity came for me to apply for the fellowship at the University of Maryland. It was a real educational opportunity for me to hang out with journalists from other backgrounds – print, radio, TV. Experts would be brought in to brief us on what the salient issues are in regards to child and family policy. This was a number of years ago, after I completed Legacy. The fellowship was a very good way for me to spend time with policy wonks and to get a better sense of what the social/political issues are that surround these stories that I’m telling. I don’t focus on policy. I like to think that my films will affect policy, but my films are not like “Frontlines” where I go and seek out experts to talk on the subject. I like to be more ethnographic by having the subjects tell their own stories and letting others draw their own impressions.
QUESTION: What led you to form your own Chicago production company, Nomadic Pictures?
TOD LENDING: I spent a ten year period of what I would call cutting my teeth. I was freelancing, and just working in film to make a living. I was working to develop my skills as a filmmaker, but I did not have the financial means to simply go off on my own right out of school and start making my own films. I felt like I needed to spend time inside the industry and really see how the commercial world works, so I went to Columbia College here in Chicago. It’s funny, they consider me an alumni even though I never got the actual certificate [laughs]. I left there in ’82, and went to New York and worked for a couple years on features in post-production. I edited a couple low-budget features and then moved to LA for seven years. That’s when I began getting into documentaries and I started out as a researcher, then an associate producer and then started producing.
After nine years of being gone, I moved back to Chicago and immediately got an assignment from Harpo Productions, Oprah Winfrey’s company. She had a special projects department where she was doing ABC after school specials, and one of them was a documentary on racism. So I was hired as a coordinating producer on that, and worked on that for a year. It was at that point when I said, ‘okay, I’ve got enough experience and I’ve got enough credits under my belt. It’s time to form a company and start pitching ideas and putting together proposals and see what money I can raise to make a film.’ So I put together a proposal for a three part series [“No Time to be a Child”] and ended up getting it funded by CPB and the MacArthur Foundation. I formed Nomadic Pictures in 1992, and I’ve been doing my own work ever since.
QUESTION: For “The Principal Story,” how did you come about choosing its two central human subjects?
TOD LENDING: Well, you have to step back and take a look at how this project actually came about. This was not an idea that I came up with on my own. It was actually a response to a request for a proposal that was sent out by the Wallace Foundation. They had selected 16 filmmakers from across the country to compete for a 1.5 million dollar grant that would look specifically at the issue of principal leadership. They had spent ten years researching, developing materials, supporting training programs around this issue of principal leadership. It is their firm belief that in order to turn around low-performing schools, you must have good principal leaders. Their decision to support a film was kind of the capstone of this initiative. This is the first time that they’ve supported a film in this kind of way, so it was a huge leap for them. We all sent in an initial proposal, and they selected three from the sixteen and gave each of us a 10,000 dollar grant. We then expanded the proposal and put together a demo reel. We already knew that one of our principals would be Tresa Dunbar.
Once we were selected, we had an interesting relationship with the foundation. On the one hand, they were not going to try and take any kind of editorial control from us. That was very important for them to give us complete editorial freedom, but on the other hand, we were responding to a request for a proposal and we certainly wanted to respect our funders. So we set out with certain goals in mind when we went to look for our principals. First of all, they had to be good principals. We weren’t going to tell the story of a struggling principal who didn’t really have the skills or know-how to do what they were doing. We needed to find people who had the expertise, and who were turning around low-performing schools where the majority of students were from low-income households. Since one of the schools – Nash Elementary – was going to be predominantly minority, the other school had to have a student body that was 46 to 50 percent low-income caucasian. That’s why we had to go outside of Chicago to find the other school. We pre-interviewed a bunch of the principals, and felt that Tresa and Kerry were the most interesting, articulate, and incredibly skilled. It was a huge project, consisting of not only the PBS film, but six ancillary films along with a half million dollar outreach project. It was so big that I brought on my partner David Mrazek to co-produce and co-direct.
QUESTION: What was your collaboration with David like, and how did you work in tandem?
TOD LENDING: David was very much in charge of researching. He was doing a lot of the groundwork in terms of researching what principals we should pre-interview. He was also in charge of setting up the shoots for the ancillary films that were looking at specific principal programs in other parts of the country. So once we were out shooting, I was working camera, he was doing sound, and he did most of the interviewing. Some of that was collaborative, when I would step in as well, but since I was behind the camera, it was also his role to be in charge of the interviews.
QUESTION: How do you earn intimacy with your subjects?
TOD LENDING: The intimacy is established through one simple word: trust, and the trust is founded through how we communicate with our subjects from the very beginning. I just am an open book, David was an open book and we just made it very clear to our subjects exactly what it was we were looking for, how long we were planning to shoot and what kind of access we were looking for. Since they agreed to it, they respected the agreement. It took a lot of courage on the part of these principals to open the doors to their schools and to their lives and let us in. It takes time to establish trust, but you get a feeling very quickly in the pre-interview process about whether or not you’re going to be able to have a relationship with your subject. That’s a huge part of the selection process. It’s not just how articulate someone is, or how much they fit what you’re looking for. Beneath all that is the human to human connection and whether or not you feel that’s there.
QUESTION: The controversial No Child Left Behind act plays a key role in of the principal’s stories. What are your personal views concerning the act?
TOD LENDING: I think it’s a really tough call to be honest with you. I feel very mixed about it, and I may be stating the obvious. The positives are that we need measurements for schools across the board. We need people to measure how well a school is doing or how poorly it’s doing. So there has to be some kind of standard set of measurements, and No Child Left Behind certainly provides it. Yet the downside is that schools have to be very careful about not teaching to the test. Kids learn in very different ways, and I think schools need to be more open to individuated learning as opposed to group learning, which these tests encourage. So maybe the key to this is addressing individual learning needs and trying to educate kids so they will do better on the test, instead of just teaching to the test. It’s a very complicated issue.
QUESTION: Your films have a history of creating real change, most famously with Legacy inspiring The Legacy Act. What goals and social reform do you hope to achieve with “The Principal’s Story” and its national outreach campaign?
TOD LENDING: These are pretty basic goals. The first that I would really like to see is a lot more funding and investment put into schools that are in low-income communities. These schools have to be more than just schools, they have to be community centers with at least two full-time social workers. Nash had one social worker who was there two days a week and one of those days was spent doing paperwork. The social and emotional needs that these kids come to school with are so intense. I don’t think the public really understands how difficult it is to educate a kid whose father has taken off, whose mother is incarcerated or addicted, who is moving from home to home, trying to find a place to settle down, who didn’t have breakfast that morning, who had to dodge bullets that morning coming to school while avoiding gangs, who’s in a gang for protection, [etc.]. I just think that most people have no idea what kinds of stresses and strains these kids bring to school. How do you teach these kids if there isn’t some kind of social/emotional support present at the school?
When you look at where our funding is going from the federal level to the state level, they just aren’t investing in this. Ironically, I recently read that out of all the industrialized nations, the U.S. spends the most money per child on education, even though we are way below in terms of academic achievement and test scores. It’s the same thing with health care: we spend more per person on health care and yet we’re not living as long or healthy of lives as they are in Japan or Sweden or Norway. So some of this is about investing more money in our system, and some of this is about how it’s being spent. I hope that this film will impress upon policy makers how important it is to get better training programs for the principals, and to buy into this idea that if you want to turn around low-performing schools, you must have strong principal leadership. I would hope that in terms of policy making or funding, some of it would go into creating better training programs for principals, and other parts of that funding would go towards social workers into the schools.
QUESTION: Do you have any future projects lined up?
TOD LENDING: Yes, in fact last night I just started shooting it. It’s another education-oriented film, but it looks at an amazing school here in Chicago, the first all-male public charter school in the country. It’s called Urban Prep, and its student body happens to all be African American, which of course is my subject. I’m going to be following three seniors in what will be their first graduating class. They are in Englewood, and their average graduation rate in Englewood is 37%, and of that 37% it’s even a smaller percentage that goes on to college. Urban Prep is on schedule to graduate at least 99% of their students, with probably 98% going on to college, so it’s a phenomenal new program. I think it could be a model for the rest of the country to use in order to turn things around for educating low-income African American men.

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