October 30, 2008

Stumping on the Teen Trail: 'FrontRunners' Follows a High School Election

By Michael Galinsky

We all need a beginning, a middle and an end....which is why filmmakers are drawn to elections and boxing matches. As it's election season, the political fights have started to pop up on screens large and small. FrontRunners, a high-stakes high school election drama, opens October 15 in New York City through Oscilloscope Pictures, and will roll out to cities across the country October 24. Filmmaker Caroline Suh was drawn to New York's Stuyvesant High School's student council presidential campaign after discovering that President Bill Clinton's political guru, Dick Morris, a Stuyvesant High School alumnus, called it the "hardest race he'd ever fought." IDA talked to Suh about what she uncovered in the corridors and classrooms.

 

Clockwise from top left: Mike, Hannah, Alex and George--candidates for student council president at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. From Caroline Suh's FrontRunners, which opens October 15 through Oscilloscope Pictures. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures.

 

IDA: How did this project come about?

Caroline Suh: I had been working on a lot of historical documentaries and wanted to take a break to direct my own project, which I wanted to be a vérité film. I've always been a fan of classic vérité campaign documentaries and thought it would be fun to do one in a lighter way by making it about a high school election. When I found out about Stuyvesant's elections-the televised debates, the racial politics, newspaper endorsements--I thought they would make for a perfect subject, especially when I found out that Dick Morris, Bill Clinton's former campaign manager, had run Congressman
Gerry Nadler's campaign for student body president when both attended Stuy.

IDA: What were your goals starting out? Did things change significantly
as you went forward?


CS: Starting out, all I really wanted to do was make a vérité campaign film, without prerequisites in terms of length, etc. Also, I wanted the film to be entertaining, but not like an episode of The Real World. In other words, I wanted it to be a film about a campaign and not a film about the inner lives of teenagers. I think that as we went forward, we were able to make that kind of film because there was a real election story going on, with a lot of actual parallels to elections on the national stage.

IDA: What was it about the idea of "elections" that you were interested in exploring?

CS: I think elections usually make for great stories. There is inherent drama, as human strengths and foibles play out in a very direct way. I'm also fascinated by people who seek power, and put themselves out there to be judged, for better or worse. Also, I love the kind of "chorus" characters in elections--the press, the voters. There are so many fascinating facets that were all in play in the Stuy election.

IDA: Given how much is riding on large-scale elections, did you have to struggle with finding a way to get people to care about this fight?

CS: Well, when we were shooting and editing the film, the elections were still a long way off, as we shot it in 2006 and finished it at the beginning of 2008. So our goal when making the film was really only to draw parallels with national elections in general; we couldn't have predicted what was to come. Of course, what we are seeing now in the national race is of historic proportions, importance and drama, while obviously in Stuy's race not as much is hanging in the balance. But given that essential discrepancy, I think it's pretty amazing when you watch the film how much it implicitly relates to what's going on on the national stage. The issues of change vs. experience, charisma, race, gender: they're all there. And that's a lot of what makes the film interesting.

Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker who had stopped caring about elections until he met Sparrow, the only candidate to represent his desires--www.sparrowforprez.com.