High School: Reflections on cinéma vérité

As I slowly make my way into the world of film and filmmaking as a research method - I have had my first encounter with a classic observational film: Fred Wiseman's High School. The film was shot during five weeks in 1968 at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. There is no narrator, no titles or explicit plot or characters and yet the film is able to portray aspects of school culture and community. This, according to one colleague is cinéma vérité at its best. Perhaps what makes the film so compelling is the level of access that the filmmaker had. During the film we see intimate moments like parent-teacher conferences, students being admonished for getting into fights, a young woman lectured on appropriate dress for the prom. However, the way the scenes are shot, it seems like the filmmaker was just another student or faculty member sitting in the room, whose gaze would occasionally get more or less focused as conversation or other activities unfolded, just as anyone's eye would travel during a class period or a meeting.

Issues like race, gender, sexuality, sex and discipline are all portrayed in the film, in particularly powerful ways. The filmmaker selected a number of different moments that contributed to an understanding of how the high school communicated and portrayed values around these issues and to a lesser degree, how students received them. According to my wikipedia search, the film was never screened in Philadelphia because it portrayed students as being oppressed by their teachers. I can see that argument. He does select a great many moments where students are receiving information and being told things, particularly in the scenes related to discipline. There were also a great many moments devoted to reinforcing or reifying traditional roles for men and women - in sexual relations, in how to dress or appear pleasing and in how to behave. I suppose the question that remains for me is: were adults doing most of the talking in this school? Were student-teacher relationships as one-sided as it was portrayed? Can even the filmmaker know the answer to this, if this is how he "saw" things?

Finally, watching this nearly 50 years later, I was struck by how little student-teacher relationships seemed to have evolved: the film is full of teachers giving admonishments, advice and strong recommendations. There are right ways to do and think about everything. I think the moment where the young woman is being scolded about wearing an appropriate dress to the prom highlights some of these positions. The teacher argues that students can't simply show up in a dark suit because they can't afford a tuxedo, they have to come dressed appropriately, they have to fulfill expectations that are laid out for them. As we know, schools have long been the battleground for traditional American values and it would suggest that this high school was no different.

I may come back to High School (the film), but final word is that I really enjoyed this film for it's approach and the questions it helped me to raise.