At the start of conversations about my film, I am consistently asked why I would make a film about toddlers getting into nursery school. I get the curiosity: I started making Nursery University as a single guy in my early 30's with parenthood on a very distant horizon (sorry mom). Moreover, my previous film After Innocence (Sundance winner in 2005 about the issues associated with wrongful imprisonment and exoneration) was a serious and emotional social justice documentary, so the topic for this, my second film, does not jut out as the logical progression. While there are several reasons I made Nursery University, a few of which are discussed below, the primary catalyst was the simple old fashioned tenet for chronicling any good subject - it was a story that had to be told.
The "eureka" moment for pursuing this topic came when I encountered an attorney colleague (my pay-the-bills job), hurrying out of his office to attend a nursery school interview. He grumbled something about $40,000 to send his twin daughters to preschool, followed by a shout from down the hall, that I should make a film about this craziness. Many months later, I found myself rejected in my first attempt to film the process - a private seminar about navigating preschool admissions. The organizers admonished me that the subject matter was far too sensitive to permit cameras in the room. Having filmed in maximum security prisons, I found this assertion laughable, but at the same time motivating.
So, after sneaking into the forbidden seminar sans camera crew, at its conclusion, I introduced myself to one of the panelists - a head of school at one of the preeminent uptown nurseries. After initial resistance (punctuated by hand gesturing the "hex" sign), she agreed to meet with me the following week to listen to my pitch on why she should be the first person in the early childhood education community (I had learned the buzzwords by this time) to allow a camera to access this previously "secret society."
The meeting with Gabriella Rowe, head of the upper west side's Mandell School, took place in her office - the same room where I would later film a child-parent nursery school interview, one of the provoking topics captured in the film. I had researched all of the media coverage, which almost unanimously focused on either the college level angst of "getting in," or the tabloid elitism angle, both of which usually included discussion of the infamous Jack Grubman-Sandy Weill 92nd Street Y scandal. While disclosing that I would not ignore these issues of reality embedded in the culture, I explained that I was far more interested in focusing on another side of the story. The film would explore the stories and emotions behind the school directors who are forced to reject many deserving families solely based on the schools' lack of capacity. Equally important, the film would focus on the families and the children who are at the center of all the fuss, but who are always ignored amidst the tabloid fodder. The goal was to create a film that would be entertaining, but at the same time, through the transparency of the lens, would bring a clearer (and hopefully healthier) understanding of the nursery school admissions culture.
Ultimately, Gabriella opened her door to me and thus began a journey, which allowed me and my filmmaking partner Matt Makar, to become the first filmmakers to get inside nursery school admissions. We are confident audiences will agree that the film accomplishes the goals I discussed with Gabriella during my first nursery school interview. Yes, it is colorful, humorous and, and at times outrageous, but it also is sensitive and informing, and brings needed perspective to the issues.
This perspective is not just relevant in New York City because, in making this film, I have learned that the preschool phenomenon is a reality in communities across the United States and internationally in cities such as London. Moreover, with spaces already filled and many parents still stinging from rejection, the most recent admissions and exmissions (to kindergarten) cycle has demonstrated that the economic downturn has not quashed the competition for the limited spaces available in both preschool and kindergarten classrooms.
Nursery University is intended for all audiences. But, I hope that parents, and those soon-to-be, will take away a little bit extra from the film in line with my observations in making it. In short, because cities such as New York, offer so many terrific preschool options, parents can benefit from placing less emphasis on getting into the "right" school and placing more focus on finding a comfortable environment for their children. Parents should keep in mind that nursery school literally represents their children's first steps and there is no point in burning out at the marathon starting line.
NURSERY UNIVERSITY opens in theaters in NYC at The Phoenix Adlabs ImaginAsian Theater ( 239 East 59th Street) on April 24, 2009.
For more information please go to: www.nurseryuniversitythemovie.com