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Sundance 2010: Bill Gates faces some inconvenient truths

January 23, 2010 |  1:52 pm

GatesGuggenheimStory Park City party venues can bring out their share of unlikely personalities to go along with the indie-film and E! reality-show fixtures that normally populate after-hours events.

But among the notable names you'd expect to see hunkering down at a Main Street hot spot as the music cranks up and the drinks begin to flow, Bill Gates is probably about the last on the list.

Yet there was the wonky billionaire, standing in the basement club of the popular and dance-happy Cicero's, holding forth to us and other reporters on education reform, a topic of particular interest to him and his foundation.

The Microsoft founder makes several appearaces in Davis Guggenheim's Sundance documentary "Waiting for Superman," a movie that aims to do for education reform what the director's "An Inconvenient Truth" did for environmental activism. An afternoon premiere Friday turned into an ad hoc social-policy session, as filmgoers, Gates, Guggenheim and several of the movie's stars went back and forth after the screening on topics like public-school lotteries and the power of teachers unions, with the group continuing the conversation at the Friday night after-party.

Although the film lays out the daunting problems across the country's school systems, Gates says that innovations like charter schools (which his foundation has spearheaded) have given him a large degree of optimism. "This film couldn't have been made five years ago. It would have been all despair," he said. "But it's starting to change."

Guggenheim said that in some ways he saw this as a more pressing subject than global warming. "Education affects everyone, and it affects every issue," he said.

The filmmaker was aware of the expectations that come with being one of Sundance's biggest success stories. "I came in [to making this movie] worried because i didn't know if you could re-create 'An Inconvenient Truth,' which was such a perfect storm of events," he said. "But I think [the education issue] us starting to gain momentum. You know, people think environmentalism was on everyone's minds [before 'Truth']. But it wasn't.

"There were a lot of articles but most people didn't read them. And then they started to become aware of them, and the movie came out and it connected with people."

For all the prescriptions in the film, Gates allows that little in the educational-reform realm is guaranteed. "It's very high-risk. We could very well fail," he said.

The talk wasn't all policy wonk, though -- Gates was happy to wear his film-nerd hat too. The entrepreneur said he planned to take in a few movies in Park City, including the Philip Seymour Hoffman directorial debut "Jack Goes Boating," about a lonely man looking for love.

Asked what it was like to visit the country's premiere film festival, Gates expressed an unexpected passion. "I love Robert Redford. 'Ordinary People' is my favorite movie of all time," he said. "I think of my top 20 movies, four or five of them either star or were directed by him."

-- By Steve Zeitchik

Photo: Bill Gates, left, and Davis Guggenheim attend the premiere party for "Waiting for Superman." Credit: Peter Kramer / Associated Press

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