American Teen Comment

Last month I reviewed American Teen (Nanette Burstein) I also briefly wrote about the film in a research paper about documentaries:

[. . .] the high school students are fully aware that they are being documented. I’m not saying that their personal stories, which they are very open about in the film, aren’t true. It just seems that in some cases, like in the more informal group scenes, that it serves more as a self-fulfilling prophecy than capturing real life.

When I was cleaning off my desk today, I found the latest issue of Paste Magazine. Skimming to their film reviews, I noticed one about American Teen, written by There’s one paragraph in particular that caught my eye: [Bold added for emphasis]

It would be natural to immediately wonder whether some moments were staged—does every sullen teen look forlornly off a bridge or sit solemnly on a playground swing?—or whether Burstein asked asked the kids to pause breakups and arguments until her crew could get there to film them. I have no idea whether any such orchestrating occurred, but just a few scenes into the film, the thought no longer bothered me. The kids, who at first seemed so aware of the cameras, and maybe even emboldened by them, soon appeared to forget all about them—a skill perhaps acquired by a generation raised on reality television and somehow accustomed, or welcoming, to cameras in their faces.

You can read the rest of her review HERE. This begs the question: Is media awareness beneficial for documentaries or is it more of a detriment? I’ll leave that for you to chew on.


3 Responses

  1. I think all of that is a moot point, Joseph. Having filmed a documentary myself, I can say that it doesn’t have so much to do with whether or not the kids know the camera is there as whether or not they trust the filmmaker. The best documentarians spend quite a bit of time getting to know their subjects intimately. They hang out, they chat with them, they are involved in their lives…they just also happen to bring a camera along. If trust is built, everything flows naturally. I’m guessing that Burstein managed to build plenty of trust with these kids. Some of the sequences are re-enacted (like the text messaging closeups, which have to be after the fact), but I imagine that none of them are staged or fabricated.

    Truly, asking whether things are staged or not is the wrong question.

  2. I think whether or not they know the camera is there is irrelevant, since any good director can find a talented editor to take the footage and cut a person’s character into whoever they want them to be.

  3. Evan I completely agree with your comment. I know this is the technique that Nanette used because I was one of the students that was followed around in 2006. I am not one of the main 5, for my part was left on the cutting room floor but I am in the movie a little bit because I was best friends with Megan (the “princess”). Nanette was a friend first and a filmmaker second. She truly was a blessing to all of our lives that were involved. She told us from the beginning what kind of documentary she was interested in making so we could trust her. We knew her visions and all she asked of us was to take those visions into consideration as we live our lives and let her know when and where she needs to be to catch something important. There was no staged scenes or any scripts written for this movie and as far as acting out because there were cameras there? All that footage was removed and nothing of the sort is in the final cut. Obviously after 10 months of filming and over 1500 hours of footage you have alot of instances where you have people in the shadows trying to act out to be noticed or steal the show. Of course there were instances like that but why would Nanette want those in her documentary? 2 years was spent editing the footage. I just think that people can learn something from this movie rather than just question its validity.

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