Review: Senior Year
A Year in the Life of Fairfax High
From the Los Angeles Times, 1/11/02
by T. L. Stanley
When David Zeiger went to L.A.'s Fairfax High School back in the '60s, it was a white, middle-class place that seemed insulated from the outside world, where topics didn't get more controversial than who was dating whom.
Returning more than 30 years later as a documentary filmmaker, Zeiger knew he would find a much-changed environment in which to set a series that follows a group of teenagers through a pivotal time in their lives; still, even he didn't realize the weighty issues his subjects would confront in a single year--everything from the sudden death of a classmate to the attempted suicide of one student's father. As for the school itself, it's now a melting pot of some 60 ethnicities, where a walk down the hallway can mean hearing dozens of languages.
"I knew Fairfax had changed a lot," said Zeiger, a native Angeleno who graduated from the public school in 1968. "I wanted to get into complexities of life in L.A., and urban life in general, and the tremendous diversity here."
The result is a 13-part series premiering tonight on PBS called "Senior Year," which trails 15 Fairfax seniors at the turn of the millennium. It joins a host of recent programs that put teens in the cinema verite spotlight -- HBO Family's "Freshman Year" and the Fox- turned-PBS series "American High" among them.
In taking on his project as director and producer, Zeiger said he wanted to give a realistic glimpse into teens' lives and bridge some gaps in understanding between older and younger generations.
"The gulf between my generation and teens today really scares me," he said. "I was trying to counter what I see as the fairly pervasive myth-making about teenagers. Their life experiences are rarely if ever dealt with in a real way on TV."
Simply by living in these times, "they're forging a new culture," Zeiger said of the current crop of teens, dubbed Generation Y. And despite being courted by corporate America and dissected by marketers, they're frequently stereotyped and misunderstood, he said.
Zeiger, through his independent production banner Displaced Films, had already done one high school-based documentary, "The Band," centered on his son Danny's junior year. The show aired as part of PBS' "P.O.V." series in 1998. He wanted to return to the classroom, and on a larger scale this time, he said.
Trying to get the best access and subjects, Zeiger spent four months at Fairfax getting to know students during their junior year. He originally planned to follow a handful of teens for a four-hour miniseries, but quickly had a group of 35 youngsters he considered possible subjects. The project then blossomed, with funding from PBS and several other sources, into a 13-week series. Zeiger winnowed the number down to 15 students and, in the process, realized that a traditional film crew (read: white baby boomers) probably would not be the way to get close to these teens.
Instead, he searched film departments at USC and UCLA for an ethnically diverse group of twentysomethings to serve as unit producers. Six students and recent graduates became his crew and were assigned, in pairs, to follow two or three Fairfax seniors. They, too, spent time with the teenagers, without cameras in tow, before the 1999-2000 school year began.
Once it did, the filmmakers shadowed the teens during everything from fights with parents and counseling sessions to football practice and the prom. Jean and Maria, a couple featured in the series (no last names are used), said that their closeness with the crew made it easier to share intimate details of their lives, including their decision to go to church and stop having sex. Jean's life, in particular, took some dramatic turns during the year. It was his father who stabbed himself in the family's home as well as his friend who was hit and killed by a car.
"After a time, we didn't even see the camera," Jean, now 19, said. "It's because of the crew that I think this is an accurate visual of what teens are really about."
Executives at the local PBS station, KCET in Hollywood, shepherded the series to the air. They said the universality of the high school experience and the poignancy of the storytelling drew them to the project.
"It's set at a school here in our own backyard, and it deals with so many larger national issues that we're interested in," said Jackie Kain, KCET's vice president of new media, who initially brought the project to public TV and now spearheads the station's Web site. "It gives a lot of powerful personal stories that show how complex and smart teens are."
PBS, whose typical viewer is 56 years old, could reach a younger audience with "Senior Year," as did the critically lauded "American High," which was picked up after being canceled by Fox. To nudge that along, the network has developed an extensive Web site for "Senior Year," featuring additional back story and students, music, message boards and chat rooms, along with resources to help teens tackle their problems. There's also a soundtrack from the show, with songs from L.A. band Ozomatli, Ani DiFranco and former Fairfax student Unity Lewis.
As with many public television projects, there's a community outreach program connected to "Senior Year." A national tour starts next month on the East Coast that will have Zeiger, crew members and the Fairfax alums visiting schools to screen the series and talk to teens.
"The project gave us a voice to say, 'Everybody has problems, everybody goes through the same things,'" Maria, now 19, said. "It's really important for teenagers to know that."