The documentary tells the story of the first graduating class of Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School from the perspective of students, parents and educators, the director said.
"The trick and challenge of making the film was, how can we tell the story of these stakeholders from three perspectives, but also tell the story of the school?" Gunther said.
The project started in the fall of 2006, when the school opened with a mission to teach an arts-oriented curriculum. Gunther, who was asked to teach documentary filmmaking at the high school, started making her film in order to document the new institution's beginnings.
But Gunther said she soon realized the story was more complicated than just the tale of "a dream come true."
"Because their expectations and idealism were so high, it was going to be really interesting to see how that played out in real life," Gunther said. "I realized, if I come back in the fourth year we can really tell the story in a trajectory."
That trajectory included the stories of students like John Dargan, now a 21-year-old senior at Connecticut College majoring in media studies and sociology.
Dargan, who is gay, said he was unable to discuss his sexuality at home with his parents, and spent much of the film coming to terms with it at school.
"There wasn't really support at home, so it had to come from somewhere, and it was BCAM," Dargan said. "That made it easier for me."
But despite how important that time was to him, Dargan said he no longer enjoys watching the movie, because of the changes in his life set in motion by the school.
"It was a point in time when I was insecure and unsure," Dargan said. "Now I'm at a point in my life where I'm more confident, and more aware of myself and who I am with my career, my sexuality, I'm aware of everything."
The film also focused on parents like Earlene Tribble, who had high expectations both for her son Moses and for the new high school.
Despite sometimes butting heads with the administration, Tribble said the school ultimately helped prepare her son for his time at Shaw University, where she said he studies business management and gets good grades.
Tribble said the film still makes her emotional.
"I've laughed, I've cried, watching the movie," Tribble said. "Who can say they actually watched themselves from freshman year all the way until they go through high school?"
The film, which has screened at 12 film festivals and finally returns to New York on Oct. 22 for the IFC Center's Stranger Than Fiction series, will also continue screening across the country at 20 different locations over the next two months at different schools. The screenings will include discussion panels with parents, teachers and students.
The director said she was surprised by how the documentary took on a life of its own.
"I didn't think that this was going to be a tool for educators, parents and students," Gunther said. "They owned the film, and felt like it was integrated into part of their school experience."
"The New Public" airs Tuesday night at 8 p.m. on the PBS World Channel, followed by a post-screening conversation. The film will also stream for free for 30 days at WorldChannel.org.