Published on November 5th, 2021 | by Meg Lemke0
The Hype and High-Stakes of Education: A Conversation with the Filmmaker Behind ACCEPTED
The pandemic exposed the disaster of the inequity within the American education system for many folks—but, many folks already knew, and again and again, schools and programs have tried to change the status quo.
Accepted, a new documentary that’s hitting the festival circuit now, looks at a school and community trying to do things differently. In rural Lousiana, an entrepreneurial Black educator founded a school in a huge, open warehouse space. Outside, flags hung for MIT, Yale, Harvard. At TM Landry, kids and families who felt the system was failing them trusted the promise of a high-expectations school, and took on long and often emotional extra hours in its cavernous space, and seemed to respond to the intensive one-on-one feedback and experimental teaching methods.
The school’s success story literally went viral, with videos of TM Landry teens reading their acceptances to Ivy league schools hitting the internet.
Then, things changed. The documentary was filmed before and after scandal rocked the school, with in-depth interviews showcasing the experiences of students and parents who believed in it, many of whom still do, and where they are left after the hype hit a hard stop. While Landry was being dragged for questionable methods on college applications, the evidence was coming out clearly that rich, white celebrities had been acting more egregious. If it’s so obviously a game, can’t everyone play?
Many parents are advocating for a revolution in schooling. After these past two years, school-issues are becoming again (and as always) divisive wedges in politics from the national stage to the playground circles. This film has stuck with me; it asks hard questions, there are not easy answers.
And here’s my conversation digging into it all with filmmaker Dan Chen – Meg Lemke
MUTHA: Did you have an idea of the story you were looking for when you first approached TM Landry? And how did that change?
DAN CHEN: From the beginning, I wanted to explore what it felt like to be a student who attended this school, going through their college admissions process through their senior year. The structure was always going to follow these students through the school year and into the beginning of their college experience or next chapter in life. What would be their struggles? What would be their hopes? What are their opinions of the college prep process, specifically at this school? In that sense, we remained true to that initial goal and structure. What we didn’t know was the allegations brought up against the school in the middle of the school year, and how that would throw the fate of these students’ futures into jeopardy.
MUTHA: All the central students filmed did get accepted into (but may not have all chosen to attend) colleges—can you speak to where they are now and how their experiences in high school may have informed their current school experiences?
DAN CHEN: I think all the students we followed got a crash course in the flaws of our education system and a close-up view of inequity in our society. And they all had different experiences leading up to attending TM Landry, so they are all taking their experiences and heading in different directions—each direction as unique as that particular student. I think they each hold a healthily skeptical view of society and institutions.
MUTHA: Why do you think that the concept of “Ivy League” holds such sway (I’m thinking both for the viral nature of those acceptance videos and for how it is parlayed by TM Landry as the sole route to change a life?)
DAN CHEN: Ivy League schools trade in exclusivity—the less they admit and the more selective they are, the more precious and sought after they become. And that subjective perception leads to very real material benefits —even if two graduates get the same quality of education at two different schools, the name of the school affects how employers and peers perceive those two graduates. Couple that with inequities of race and access in America, and I think that’s what helped the TM Landry viral videos strike a national chord (that and the visceral joy in those recordings). I think Mike Landry was interested in turning racial and regional disparities in education into a narrative of aiming high, proving others wrong, and overcoming the odds.
MUTHA: It’s interesting to watch this in 2021, knowing that so many of these outrageously expensive/elitist schools both did not run in person this past year, and that some have now foregone tests as part of admissions coming out of 2020-21. Has the pandemic exposed something this film is also getting at?
DAN CHEN: The pandemic has exposed many things wrong with our society —and I think the common theme is a growing and unsustainable inequality. Our film explores inequality and flawed systems in education through the eyes of students living through it.
MUTHA: As a filmmaker, how did you navigate coming into this community in terms of gaining acceptance and trust?
DAN CHEN: In documentary in general, trust needs to be earned, and it can’t be taken for granted. It’s something we thought about a lot, but in the simplest terms we always sought to have the community lead the story. What do they want to express that isn’t being expressed? What do they want to show that isn’t being shown? What could be recorded that could help someone else going through this process feel less lonely? What could be recorded that could shed light on an issue and provide clarity? With those principles in mind, it was then a process of checking in each time we filmed to make sure we were aligned with the folks we were filming with.
MUTHA: The public system often doesn’t allow for innovation in teaching, and it’s very powerful for parents to find an option that feels like it can work more uniquely for their child. Is there a message to parents behind exposes of “miracle schools”–how does it speak to the system overall and possibility for change? (I’m thinking also of the highly publicized video of Success Academy here in NYC).
DAN CHEN: While I don’t know too much about the Success Academy story, I feel that in some ways school is now seen as a tool to get ahead, rather than an opportunity for students to learn about the world and themselves (which can be incredibly empowering). The more our society focuses on status, the more schools will adapt to that mentality of competition and hierarchy. But in the end, each individual can decide for themselves what education means to them.
MUTHA: How has the response to the film been so far? What projects are you working on next?
DAN CHEN: Some have had their faith in elite institutions shaken, many have debated the ethics of programs like TM Landry and educational access, and all of the people I’ve talked to deeply resonated with the journey these students went on through their senior year. For that I’m glad. The conversation around education rages on, but it’s the students who live through the consequences of adult decisions. Their stories deserve to be witnessed.