Review: Senior Year

Back to School for New PBS Series

From the New Jersey Star Ledger, 1/11/02
by Matt Zoller Seitz

They say every picture tells a story. Apparently, the same thing is true of yearbook photos.

Two years ago, filmmaker R.J. Cutler told the story of some suburban Chicago high school students in his nonfiction series "American High," which aired briefly on Fox, got yanked, then found a brief second life on PBS. Now comes filmmaker David Zeiger with another PBS high school documentary series, 'Senior Year."

Zeiger's series was in development at the same time as Cutler's and has some of the same conceptual devices -- peppy music, fly-on-the-wall camera work, snippets of "video diaries" created by the students themselves. But the two series feel quite different. "American High" was brisk, brightly produced, and set at a mostly white, suburban high school. "Senior Year" is set at a mostly Latino and black school in central Los Angeles and often adopts a more somber, meditative tone.

The exact name of the place is Fairfax High. Zeiger, a Los Angeles native, graduated from the school in 1968, and didn't return for more than 20 years, to shoot "Senior Year" in 1999-2000.

Things have changed a lot since then. The student body is more diverse, the surrounding neighborhood is poorer, and American teenagers in general inhabit a much rougher, more squalid world than their parents and grandparents did.

Zeiger first considered the idea of doing a high school documentary series for television back in 1998, when PBS aired his film "The Band." An intensely autobiographical documentary shot in and around Atlanta, it concerned the school's marching band and Zeiger's relationship with Michael, his then-teenage son from a previous marriage. (Zeiger remarried and now has two young daughters.) At that time, the Zeigers were still trying to deal with the loss of Michael's younger brother, Danny, who died when Michael was 9.

While shooting "The Band," Zeiger realized that any of his son's classmates probably had a story that was just as complex and dramatic as theirs -- and that high school might prove fertile ground for a nonfiction TV series.

"The key thing we were trying to do with 'Senior Year' was create a real collaboration between the kids and the filmmakers," says Zeiger. To that end, Zeiger visited Los Angeles-area film schools and hired experienced camerapersons who were close in age to the students they'd be taping.

"I wanted kids very close in age and background to the kids at Fairfax High, so they could develop a genuine camaraderie," Zeiger says.

The strategy worked. Each cameraperson followed three students around for a single academic year, generating 18 individual stories. Zeiger chose to concentrate on 15 students for the TV series. The other three are dealt with in special, 10-minute, Internet-only episodes that can be viewed on the show's Web site (www.pbs.org/senioryear).

The TV show's cast of characters is strange, lively and impossible to pigeonhole. It includes:

-- Maria and Jean, a Latino couple whose solid, respectful relationship insulates Jean against the trauma of his parents' divorce and his dad's suicide attempt.

-- Derard, a super-talented African-American football ace and academic achiever who transferred to Fairfax High to become a gridiron star, but now finds himself mired in a career-jeopardizing losing streak.

-- Jet, an openly gay Filipino cheerleader and ROTC member whose hard-partying lifestyle and penchant for sneaking around are panicking his conservative parents.

-- Boris, the academically accomplished son of Russian immigrants.

-- Unity, a young African-American man who's fascinated by rap and Rastafarian culture, and who has unmistakable leadership abilities.

And, most memorable of all,

-- Kendra, an African-American special education student who is far more aware of how she's perceived by others than any of her peers might imagine. (A startling moment shows Kendra politely confronting a cameraperson and asking the woman to stop taping her so much because her life is hard enough as it is.)

Between the filmmakers' friendly but intense relationship with the high school students, and the students' own attempts to make confessional "video diaries," 'Senior Year" yielded hundreds of hours of raw material. Zeiger and his collaborators were able to map out the intersecting relationships before the editing process began, using techniques Zeiger learned while making "The Band."

"I had a team of editors that was just tremendous," Zeiger says. "What became so enjoyable about it was that there were so many different ways to tell the stories. We could experiment with it and take it in different directions."

"Senior Year" isn't merely a record of a single academic year, nor does it pretend to be. It's more complicated and self-aware than that. Zeiger and his filmmaking team have made a series about young adults attempting to create, define and control their own images -- a process that's brought vividly to life throughout the series.

That's what makes the brief exchange between Kendra and the cameraperson so startling. Common wisdom says Kendra doesn't understand as much as her non-disabled peers. Yet she and her family gave permission to be taped; she knows what being on camera does to people's images; she decides to engage with the TV series actively, rather than sit back passively and allow it to define her.

"In that scene with Kendra, she's setting ground rules," says Zeiger. "You're learning a little something about her, and you're learning a lot about what's going on when you're making this kind of a series."


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