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Austin Film Festival 2017: “Fail State” Review

“Fail State” is a 2017 documentary from director/co-writer/producer Alex Shebanow. The film, which claims journalist Dan Rather as one of its producers, tackles the subject of for-profit colleges and student loan debt in the United States.

Dan Rather (Executive Producer) and Alex Shebanow (Director) at the red carpet premiere of “Fail State” | Photo by Catherine Gutierrez

Much of the documentary feature is made up of vignettes: people who have been personally affected by the way for-profit institutions are run. The audience gets to follow their journeys, from excitement at the prospect of an education and new career opportunities to the realization that the time and money invested in the process were a waste. There are plenty of numbers and statistics presented throughout “Fail State,” but the real story lies with the names and faces we meet.

Among the institutions discussed in the film are DeVry University, Westwood College, Kaplan University and the now-defunct ITT Technical Institute. In addition to hearing from former students who were exploited by the system, viewers also get to learn about the operations of these predatory institutions from someone who worked for one and fought to expose their manipulative practices.

There is no shortage of experts consulting on “Fail State,” with talking heads including the Louisiana State University President and Chancellor, F. King Alexander; Iowa Senator Tom Harkin; Miami Herald investigative reporter Michael Vasquez; Rohit Chopra, a student loan ombudsman from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; National Consumer Law Center attorney Deanne Loonin; and President Gail O. Mellow of LaGuardia Community College. With the perspectives of these professionals and many others in the education, law, financial and political fields, the documentary shows viewers that this issue doesn’t just fall into one arena. It also presents a bipartisan view of these issues, pointing out that no matter one’s party, one could still be on the right or the wrong side of the issue.

Audiences who have little to no experience with for-profit institutions will surely learn from this documentary. There is information about government involvement from the 1970s until the present day, as well as a look into the internal operations of the institutions and how they prey on unsuspecting people who just want their part of the American Dream. Any viewer who has amassed student loan debt, no matter the educational institution, will be able to commiserate with the struggle faced by those in the film.

“Fail State” is about education, government regulation and personal finances, but it is also about the gap between social classes, and how higher education is widening the gap. Portions of the film even focus on the difference community colleges make for many people. Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam appears in the documentary to speak on the program he implemented statewide, allowing more people access to higher education and working to close that class gap.

This documentary feature throws a lot of information out, but anyone who loves learning through film will enjoy “Fail State” and will more than likely be motivated to act against a federal government that supports for-profit institutions.

You can catch “Fail State” at the 2017 Austin Film Festival on Wednesday November 1 at 1:30 PM  at Galaxy Highland, Screen 8

Stay tuned for more reviews and interviews from the 2017 Austin Film Festival!


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