Review: Senior Year

Outside Looking In

Documentary Filmmaker David Zeiger's Labor of Love Produces Brilliant 'Senior Year'
From Creative Loafing, Atlanta, GA, 3/27/02

Freaks. Geeks. Sluts. Nuts. The media depiction of the teenage years in the era of Britney Spears, Columbine and American Pie is not a kind or pretty thing.

But one man has managed to offer a bracing corrective to this dismissive picture of the nation's future in his remarkable PBS series "Senior Year," which explores the less-than-"Wonder Years" at a racially diverse Los Angeles high school.

Fifty-one-year-old documentary filmmaker David Zeiger began his inquiry into the teenage scheme of things in Atlanta while making the documentary The Band, about his son Danny's Decatur High School marching band. And he continues plumbing its depths from his new home in Los Angeles. After living 13 years, off and on, in Atlanta, Zeiger moved back to his native L.A. three years ago so that he and his schoolteacher wife Maryann and two young daughters could be closer to family.

Zeiger's first film was Displaced in the New South, an award-winning portrait of Atlanta's invisible immigrant class. Though its subject matter couldn't be more different than that of The Band and "Senior Year," there is a common theme that haunts all his work.

"In many ways it's being in the middle of something and outside it at the same time," says Zeiger of his philosophical crux. "The first film I made was about immigrants in Georgia. And my interest in that was kind of dealing with the reality of being in the middle of the South and totally alien to it."

Like the best documentary filmmakers, Zeiger adapts his work to the landscape he works and lives in. With the brilliant "Senior Year," Zeiger explores that interest yet again from the perspective of terminally restless, alienated teenagers. The critically praised show concludes March 30 at midnight on GPTV with Episode 13, "This Too Shall Pass."

Zeiger attended the same high school, Fairfax, that he documents in "Senior Year," and he clearly sees an affinity between his own trouble-making teen years and the opinionated, unconventional kids of Fairfax.

"I was very much a rebel and got in a lot of trouble in high school," says Zeiger of his own school days during the tempestuous '60s.

While the world of Zeiger's own teenage years has changed drastically, one thing remains the same. The economics of documentary filmmaking haven't improved.

New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta -- wherever a documentarian ends up, the proverbial money problems follow. In Atlanta, Zeiger took side jobs doing still photography for a variety of clients, including the Alliance Theater, Actor's Express, Center for Puppetry Arts and Atlanta magazine, to supplement his meager doc earnings. In Los Angeles, he teaches as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Southern California's School of Film and Television.

Asked whether it's easier to make a living as a documentary filmmaker in New York or L.A., Zeiger confesses. "That's a question I've been struggling with for awhile now. Cause I'll tell you what: I sure am not making a living with 'Senior Year.' I ended up losing a tremendous amount of money on 'Senior Year.'"

What Los Angeles does offer documentary filmmakers is a city enthralled with movie culture, an obsession that has its good and bad side.

"We were a bit of a small pond," recalls Zeiger of his days in the Atlanta filmmaking community, "but the intimacy that comes from that is something I haven't been able to find at all here. I was very active with IMAGE and in the theater scene as a photographer. But even being spread thin, it always seemed like people were close by -- something that's hard to find in L.A., which is huge and infinitely more scattered than Atlanta."

By contrast, in L.A., "it's a business, it's a job out here," says Zeiger of the single-mindedness that defines the city. "The entertainment industry is the biggest employer in California right now ... it has overtaken the aerospace industry."

Zeiger's next project is a documentary about octogenarian Hollywood writers and producers called Funny Old Guys, which he says has been sold to "one of the premium cable channels ... I can't say which one yet."

Though his stomping ground may have changed, what remains exciting about Zeiger's career path is his dedication to making films regardless of the financial rewards in a movie culture where every indie director pines for that Hollywood gravy train.

Zeiger's bottom-line advice to filmmakers on either coast?

"Make films that you are really passionate about. It's a cliche, but it's really true. It's really hard to finish a film. And if you're not passionate about it, you're just going to be in trouble."