Skip to main content

High School Docs: The Alumni

By Betsy McLane

Turning their cameras on the problems of American middle-class youth has been a favorite pre-occupation for filmmakers since the word teen-ager was invented. While not focusing on violence and crime, the problems of very poor schools, or the triumph of good teachers over all odds, the films discussed here make some very pithy comments about high school life. How much has actually changed in high school life—and in the way that life is captured in a documentary?

In the late 1960s, two widely seen documentaries, which intimately examine the experience of American high school, were made. The better known of these, Frederick Wiseman’s High School (1968), is regarded as a classic of American cinéma vérité. The other, Arthur Barron’s Sixteen in Webster Groves (1966), is an archetype of serious network television journalism. With very different rationale and modus operandi, the two make surprisingly similar statements about the culture and values of high school.

Barron was assigned the subject of teen life by the executives at the network series CBS Reports, for which he was a staff producer. He consulted with sociologists, and in conjunction with researchers at the University of Chicago designed and implemented a survey given to all the sixteen-year-olds in Webster Groves, a wealthy suburb of St. Louis. The results of this survey were then interpreted on film. The customs, the attitudes of children and parents, and the kid’s day-to-day activities were shot with the specific goal of illustrating the results of the written survey. This included the presence of Charles Kuralt as on-camera reporter, an orchestrated interview with parents, sequences that used Vaseline on the lens and a helicopter shot.

Barron, (In an interview in Alan Rosenthal’s 1971 book The New Documentary in Action) states, “I must say that I wasn’t totally honest in persuading the school board to let me do the film. There was, as in many films, a certain amount of conning and manipulating involved… I never said to the community or CBS that what we would find was a highly materialistic society whose individuality was crushed, and whose values were absolutely deplorable…” The outcry over this starkly depressing depiction was so severe in Webster Groves that Barron was commanded by CBS to make Webster Groves Revisited.

Released on television two years later, Wiseman’s High School comes to pretty much the same conclusion through a completely different documentary technique. High School is Wiseman’s second major documentary, immediately following the hue and cry surrounding Titticut Follies (1967). After that film was suppressed by state injunction, Wiseman had to shift his plan to film in a Boston school to affluent North East High outside of Philadelphia. Unlike Barron, virtually no preliminary research shaped Wiseman’s work, and his principle funding came from a grant. He and cameraman Richard Leiterman shot for 22 days in vérité style with little pre-planning and with the full cooperation of North East High. As in Sixteen, the finished film shows a desultory student body, hammered into conformity by well-meaning bureaucrats who manage to make learning dull. The culmination, as the principal reads a letter from a grateful alumnus stationed on an aircraft carrier off Vietnam, makes clear how successful the American high school system is at turning out “model” citizens. Wiseman revisted the high school paradigm in 1994 with High School II, which he shot at Central Park East Secondary School in New York City.

Other notable films that have managed to go under the surface of the high school experience include:

  • Football, a/k/a Mooney vs. Fowle, produced in 1961 by Robert Drew for ABC’s The Living Camera series, tells the story of the rivalry between two Miami football teams. It remains a harrowing trip into the world of high school sports.
  • All American High, made independently by Keva Rosenfeld in 1985, follows a year in the life of a female exchange student from Sweden in an upper-middle high school in Southern California. ∙ Seventeen, directed by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines as part of the 1991 PBS Middletown series produced by Peter Davis, follows the senior class of the Muncie, Indiana South Side High School through its final year.

These and other documentaries are a chronicle of over three decades of life in American high schools. With the new series’ insistence on the authenticity of their stories, it would be a wise programmer who managed to put them together on the bill with the work from our new century.