Review: Senior Year

A New Dynamic for "Senior Year"

From USA Today, 1/11/02
by Bill Keveney

Most people reminisce about high school by opening a yearbook. Some recent Los Angeles graduates can go back just by turning on the TV.

Senior Year, a 13-part PBS documentary that premieres tonight (10 ET/PT, times may vary), chronicles the final year of high school through the experiences of 15 students at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, whose students can trace backgrounds to 60 countries.

"How many people can look back and see their senior year? You think, 'When I was a senior ... ' We know. We can see it. And it changed my life," says Maria, one of the Fairfax students.

Filmmaker David Zeiger, who attended Fairfax 30 years ago, when "everyone there looked like me," saw his alma mater as a place to document a familiar rite of passage through the prism of huge racial, ethnic and cultural change.

"This is the generation that's grown up in a dramatically changing demographic in the world and in this country, and in Los Angeles in particular. And I wanted to capture that," Zeiger says.

The episodes look at traditional elements, such as a football team determined to reverse a long string of losses, but the show also explores the complex lives of its students. They include a Latino and white couple coping with a parent's attempted suicide; a gay Filipino who participates in cheerleading and high school ROTC; and a girl of Korean heritage caught between modern teen ways and her mother's strict upbringing. Zeiger says the broad demographic cross-section and the filmmaking approach make Senior Year a much different presentation than American High, the documentary series about high school broadcast last year on PBS after a short run on Fox.

Zeiger recruited six film students from USC and UCLA to follow the high-schoolers, hoping their closeness in age would foster a relaxed environment. The filmmakers got to know the students before filming to create familiarity and, in many cases, friendships.

Fairfax students say they were comfortable on camera.

"After a while, the camera was gone," says Maria's fiancÚ, Jean, another student. The couple, who plan to wed in July, now attend East L.A. Community College.

Unity, another featured student, whose music will be included in the series, says the filmmakers achieved their goal. "The series is great," says Unity, a rapper now attending the California College of Arts and Crafts. "It gives people a small taste of who I am."