Monday, May 28, 2007

Film Review--Chain Camera (2001)

In 2000, filmmaker Kirby Dick had wanted to produce a documentary about teenagers. His approach was to hand out ten video cameras to students at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles and asked them to document their lives for one week, without fear of censorship. Then, after their week was up, they were to give these cameras to ten different students, who would do the same for the entire school year. The final product, 2001’s Chain Camera, is the raw footage of sixteen of these kids, filtered through the editing room. This footage, while a mixed bag most of the time, does however bring up some interesting questions.

Ideally, Chain Camera is a documentary without a subjective voice. This is, however, an impossibly ridiculous notion. The thousands of hours recorded by hundreds of students is shrunk down to approximately eight minutes screen time for sixteen stories, and this forces the issue of subjectivity, if only do get the ninety most interesting minutes. But, given how interminably boring some of the segments are, they couldn’t have been filtered for human interest. The students are fairly diverse in class, race, and gender, but there appears to be an overriding message, that is to say that everything with kids today is a-ok. It seems like there should have been some alternative world views presented and, while there is a lesbian couple, a politically-charged artist from a broken home, and a girl who’s dream is to be a stripper, they all seem to come to the same conclusion: that, with hard work and determination, they’ll be able to make something of themselves. That’s dandy, but I have a hard time believing that this is the viewpoint of most of these hundreds of people, and it appears to have been placed together to give a falsely na├»ve viewpoint. Are these kids this single-minded? I have a hard time believing it. Are these kids, like most kids, so self-absorbed that they can’t see beyond the walls of their school? This I can buy but, if this is the case, Kirby Dick could have, in the editing room, given viewers a sense of this. There would have been, literally, thousands of hours of footage to compile here; there really could have been some meaty material here. Instead, the most “shocking” thing shown in the film was a high school senior smoking pot. Wow…a true revelation.

Chain Camera is a great idea and a solid theory. Unfortunately, its success ends here. There are some entertaining segments, there are some boring ones. Most importantly, though, there are no connections made between any of them and it feels like each student, behind the camera, is living in a bubble. It would have been interesting, as a special feature on the DVD, to revisit some of these kids a few years later to see if and how their views have changed once they left school, a la the 7 Up series, but it seems they were content to leave these stories in their respective bubbles. Personally, I’ll go back to Paul Almond and Michael Apted for this kind of insight into children and young adults. Even if these productions are solidly dated, they are superior and, if Chain Camera taught me anything, it’s that the mindset of kids doesn’t change that much generation to generation, at least when one asks them about themselves.