Filmmaker Bob Bowdon opens up about Christie-endorsed public school documentary ‘The Cartel’

Amanda Carey | Contributor

“The movie so succinctly, and so colorfully lays out what went on in the New Jersey education system that it’s not only really informative and really has helped me, but it’s also really entertaining on top of it.”

With an endorsement like that from New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie, it’s no wonder the documentary “The Cartel” has had so much success.

The film, an investigative look at public schools in New Jersey, received critical acclaim when it was released in select cities back in April. Among its awards are the 2009 Audience Award at the Hoboken International Film Festival, the 2010 Audience Award at the Atlanta International Documentary Film Festival, and the Visionary Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2010 Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival.

And with the DVD release set for today, “The Cartel” is just beginning to fully reach its potential audience. So when the filmmaker, Bob Bowdon, was in the nation’s capital for a summit on education reform (with Christie as the keynote speaker), The Daily Caller thought it was the perfect time to catch up with the man who voluntarily took on the powerful New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

No stranger to investigative reporting, Bowdon spent the first half of his career as a producer, host, and reporter on cable TV. He gave up his last job as a reporter for Bloomberg Television to work on “The Cartel” — a significant risk at the time.

“Eventually in a career there comes a time to really strike out and do what you want,” Bowdon told TheDC when asked about his career move. “Instead of just being assigned stories the network thinks needs to be covered that day.”

“Plus, I did a few education stories along the way and was outraged by what I found,” he added, before describing how the final catalyst for him was when a friend got a job at an inner-city high school and began sharing stories. “That was the final kick in the butt,” said Bowdon.

From the first interview to the first film festival, the documentary took about two and-a-half years. It was entirely self-financed, and in the beginning, Bowdon was the sole employee of his production company, Bowdon Media.

“Some friends would help out as a favor,” Bowdon recalled, chuckling. “Along the way I got an intern who I kind of taught how to shoot.”

With the tone of a 20/20 or Dateline special, “The Cartel” looks at every aspect of public schools in New Jersey, the state that spends the most money per classroom. But as Bowdon revealed, the more than $300,000 spent on each class has had little effect on test scores. Thus Bowdon, in “The Cartel,” tires to figure out what happens between when the time when the state writes the check and the school opens its doors.

What he found isn’t pretty: a powerful teachers’ union, corrupt school boards, exorbitant administrative salaries, lousy teachers, blind opposition to school choice, and frustrated parents. “I don’t know where the money’s going,” said one parent whose child attended a failing school. “The equipment is destroyed, there’s graffiti everywhere.”

Bowdon exposed it all. “I knew when I did this that I would have people shooting at my head, basically gunning for me,” he told the DC. “I knew they were going to claim I was the worst devil in the world. But I don’t think they can claim I invented the Tom Brokaw clip, or what Mayor Bloomberg said, or what was on CNN that day,” Bowdon said.

The clip of an exasperated Mayor Bloomberg railing about failing schools is indeed one of the most memorable of the many memorable clips used in the film. “The teacher tells the parent, ‘Oh this is a good school.’ Then I say ‘Lady, your kid can’t read or add two and two. What do you mean it’s a good school?’” Bloomberg is shown saying.

But while the mayor of New York City may have caught on to the problem, some haven’t, including NJEA President Joyce Powell, whom Bowdon interviewed for the film.

“The beauty of it is they can never claim I took her comments out of context,” said Bowdon. “I let her express her answers to questions about things like tenure and charter school lotteries. You don’t have to manipulate the words of these people – they’re actual beliefs.”

“It’s not like I could have said to her, ‘Are you kidding? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!’ I had to sit there and just nod.”

The one thing “The Cartel” noticeably does not mention is President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative, which some say has been an enormous hamper to serious school reform. Though according to Bowdon, for the purposes of “The Cartel,” NCLB would have been too much of a distraction.

“Schools were absolutely, chronically failing before NCLB and are chronically failing after NCLB,” said Bowdon. “American education is mostly a local and state rather than a federal issue…That’s where the money is spent.”

But as far as Bowdon is concerned, he’s quite happy with the success of his first foray into documentary filmmaking, calling the reaction to “The Cartel” “much larger” than he could have imagined.

“The fact is we played our part in what seems like a tipping point between where education reform becomes a mainstream issue,” said Bowdon. He pointed to other school reform ventures, like the documentary “Waiting for Superman” that also brought national attention to failing schools, and that Bowdon called “more human-interest, but complimentary” to his film.

He also included former Washington D.C. school Chancellor Michelle Rhee. “A lot of people know who she is, for example. But there was no Michelle Rhee five years ago. And if there were, nobody would have known her name.”

So what’s in store for Bowdon in the future? Although he admitted he doesn’t “actually have another idea yet” for a documentary, his next project is sure to be just as entertaining: hosting a show on The Onion news network.

Tags : chris christie education education reform
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