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Docurama presents
The First Year (2001)

"It's kind of like growing up in a coal town, and ending up in the coal mine."
- Nate Monley

Review By: Nate Meyers   
Published: June 23, 2004

Stars: Georgene Acosta, Geneviève DuBose, Joy Kraft, Nate Monley, Maurice Rabb
Other Stars: Vincent, Marvin, Mike, Juan, Tyquan
Director: Davis Guggenheim

Manufacturer: IFPI
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (Some derogatory language)
Run Time: 01h:18m:09s
Release Date: April 27, 2004
UPC: 767685957530
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- B-B-B- B-

DVD Review

American public school teachers are a curious breed. Some of them work so hard and are so on top of their game that you can't say enough to praise them. Others, however, one wonders if the students should be teaching them. The First Year, Davis Guggenheim's PBS documentary, chronicles five teachers throughout their first year of teaching at various inner-city L.A. schools. We follow the five teachers during the 1999-2000 school year as Guggenheim presents to us what he intends to be an inspirational call for his views to become involved.

Georgene Acosta is a high school teacher in Los Angeles, teaching 11th grade English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL). Unfortunately, this is all that we know about Ms. Acosta. At no time do we learn what her background is, where she comes from, or what her motivation for being a teacher is. All we know is that the school district has made an error in its accounting, and ESL is in danger of being cut from the curriculum. Make no mistake, this is a major point of conflict in the documentary, but because nothing is explained about Ms. Acosta or any of her students there is no real sense of immediacy or urgency. Guggenheim seems to be more interested in Acosta's efforts at turning her students into political activists and as a result we never get a single scene that effectively portrays Ms. Acosta as a good teacher.

Geneviève DuBose teaches sixth grade English and social studies in South Central Los Angeles. Unlike Ms. Acosta, Guggenheim gives Ms. DuBose's story context. DuBose has plenty of energy when school begins, but it comes as no surprise that she begins to tire when she encounters two problem students (Marvin and Vincent). Guggenheim wisely focuses on the relationship between Ms. DuBose and Marvin, giving the audience little snippets of information throughout the documentary that form a genuinely interesting story arc.

Joy Kraft teaches ninth-grade cultural awareness in Venice, California. She, on the basis of Guggenheim's portrayal, seems to be personally invested in breaking down the stereotyping of and bigoted behavior towards gays. It's hard to believe that this would be all that Ms. Kraft focused her attention on during the school year, but Guggenheim never bothers to present any of the other material she undoubtedly taught. Instead, he focuses on a fairly typical and uninteresting conflict between Ms. Kraft and one of her students, Mike.

Nate Monley comes from a long line of teachers. His family history is given a nice chunk of screen time, but there's no real connection made to the events portrayed in the movie. Mr. Monley teaches fifth grade in East L.A. One of his students, Juan, is difficult. For some reason, the documentary doesn't make it especially clear, Mr. Monley forms a vested interest in Juan. After school lunches become a norm for the two of them as Mr. Monley tries to teach Juan that there are more important things than being tough. One would assume that math, history, and literature are some of those things—but we never see Mr. Monley stress the importance of education to Juan.

The final teacher is Maurice Rabb. He grew up in Illinois and has just moved to Los Angeles where he teaches kindergarten. Unlike all of the other teachers depicted in the documentary, Guggenheim fully develops Mr. Rabb's purpose. His sister's educational needs were not being met by the school she attended, so when Tyquan, one of Mr. Rabb's students, has a speech impediment and the school's speech therapist is never around to help, Mr. Rabb takes up Tyquan's cause. Only when the two of them are on the screen does the viewer get sucked out of the documentary's message and into the lives of the people being told. The aggravation Mr. Rabb goes through in trying to make sure Tyquan has a chance and the constant fear that Tyquan will never get it more than make up for Guggenheim's poor handling of the other teachers' stories.

Considering the amount of information mentioned in this review, it looks as though Guggenheim has himself a tremendous documentary. However, The First Year doesn't delve into any of the relationships (excluding Mr. Rabb and Tyquan) or into any of the teachers examined. It is a rare occurrence that any of the five teachers provides an interview and when they do, the information presented is either repetitive or a non sequitor. Nor does Guggenheim truly examine what it is to be a teacher, never posing tough questions to his subjects or to the audience, never encouraging us to make a decision about how the teacher is conducting the class, and never offering the opportunity to see the material that is being taught (some glimpses are given, but not enough to truly appreciate or criticize the teachers). Guggenheim had a marvelous opportunity with this project to portray some unsung heroes, but he thoroughly fails in all respects.

That is not to say that these teachers are not deserving of a documentary, nor is it to say that they aren't heroes in some way shape or form. But Guggenheim's direction of the material is so high-minded that the people depicted become lost.

Despite his failings, Guggenheim has managed to do something that is rare in documentaries. He has told a story that is bogged down by his own desire to change a situation, but he has told the story with passion and subtly. There is no commanding control over the camera, and most of the photography is very bland and repetitive. However, unlike many popular documentarians today, Guggenheim does not invent situations and mislead his audience. He does make some miscalculations about how to divvy up screen time between the teachers and some of his big, heavy-hitting scenes play as mild roars. But he is dealing with a subject that is of profound importance and he treats it with respect, even if this respect ultimately leads to pontifical storytelling.

Though its failings are numerous, The First Year does have noble intentions. Director Guggenheim and his crew clearly admire and respect teachers, but they aren't quite viewing any of their subjects as human. Rather than delving into the potentially fascinating story of these five individual people, Guggenheim has made nothing more than an 78-minute trailer of a much more expansive documentary that needs to be made. Perhaps Guggenheim just wasn't ready to communicate this story, but what he has communicated gets an A for effort, and a C- for its end result.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The First Year was shot on video and this transfer accurately shows this. Presented in 1.78:1 nonanamorphic widescreen, the image is grainy in dim-lighting, contains no depth, and colors are muted. Contrast is well-maintained and the image is always light enough to read everybody's face. Most if not all of the flaws in the image can be traced back to the source footage, but a nonanamorphic widescreen image just doesn't have the resolution needed to make up for the footage's flaws.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby stereo 2.0 mix is fittingly lackluster. No sounds are present in the surround speakers and the side main speakers are only used in hallway scenes and for the musical score. Dialogue is easily understood, which is impressive considering that this is raw audio from classrooms with anywhere between 20-70 kids in the room. This is a solid representation of the documentary's original sound mix, but it isn't exciting to listen to.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 9 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Production Notes
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Georgene Acosta, Geneviève DuBose, Joy Kraft-Watts, Nate Monley, Maurice Rabb
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert booklet-explaining the conditions of teachers in America and the importance of getting involved. Also accessible on the disc.
  2. Teachers' Profiles-six short video clips of each teacher.
  3. Website-a plug about pbs.org's website relating to the documentary.
Extras Review: Surprisingly, The First Year has quite a number of extras. Inside the keepcase is the insert How to Get Involved, which gives statistics about teaching and seeks to recruit, retain, and inspire upcoming and current teachers. All of the information provided in this booklet can also be found on the disc (under the same heading). Teachers' Profiles are cast biographies done in roughly two minutes for each teacher. Accompanying this are production notes on the making of the film and a filmography for director Davis Guggenheim. There is also an advertisement on the disc for the PBS website relating to the movie.

There is a short documentary that accompanies the feature. Teach (35m:22s) shows the five teachers from the feature with some additional footage and comments. However, most of their material is recycled from the documentary. The major asset to this short is the inclusion of Andrew Glass, a special-education teacher not featured in The First Year. He is much more interesting than any of the five teachers in the full-length documentary, plus his class seems to have a lot more cinematic value to it than the others. There is also a short Epilogue (05m:22s), narrated by Elisabeth Shue, which gives an update on the teachers and students featured in the movie.

The major special feature for this set is an audio commentary with all of the teachers featured in the documentary. Their comments range from "I loved this" to insightful discussions about why they chose a particular wardrobe and why they behaved a certain way in front of students. Some of the information provided in the commentary would have been useful in the documentary, because it helps to develop these people and better explain what it is to be a teacher. All of the teachers also provide commentary for the Epilogue.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

The First Year is a movie that can't really be recommended or not recommended to a blanket group of people. If you like documentaries and are interested in high-minded projects, then this is probably your cup of tea. If you like documentaries that really push you and challenge you, then don't bother.


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