This is my entry for “H” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “H” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Harvard Beats Yale 29 to 29, Heima, Helvetica, Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, Hillsborough, The Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.
Title: High School
Release Date: May 1, 1968
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Production Company: Zipporah Films
Provocative filmmaker Frederick Wiseman brought his cameras to Northeast High School in Philadelphia for five weeks in March and April 1968. The result is an unnarrated, cinéma vérité glimpse into the lives of students, teachers, staff, and parents.
1968 is the height of the civil strife and the emergence of the youth culture of the 1960s, so that is definitely undergirding a lot of what we see on screen, although I think it can be overstated. One scene shows a conversation about former students wounded in Vietnam. The assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is mentioned in passing. A teacher surveys a class of white students about their willingness to be part of an organization with black people (the higher the percentage of black members, the fewer hands go up).
But the majority of the film depicts what feels like the timeless aspects of high school. The movie was filmed 5 years before I was born and 20 years before I attended high school, but a lot of it felt familiar. There are no long-haired hippies at this school. Rebellion comes in the form of high hemlines, talking back to teachers, and attempting to avoid gym class.
Wiseman’s camera captures many instances of teachers attempting to assert their authority over the students. Often this ends up devolving into absurdity. A teacher howls louder and louder for students to display their hall passes while the students show increasing indifference to him. A dean exclaims the absolute necessity for girls to wear a floor length gown to a formal even though she eventually admits that they are uncomfortable and difficult to walk in. There’s a least one “cool” teacher in the school, though, as she uses a recent song by Simon & Garfunkel to help illustrate the principles of poetry.
If you thought that parents arguing with teachers about their child’s grades was a recent thing, you will be convinced otherwise when the rubber-faced father of a girl named Rhona is animatedly insistent that his daughter should not be flunked. The same father later insults Rhona’s intelligence, though, and Rhona appears to agree with him.
The casual sexism at the school is perhaps the most alarming aspect of watching this movie 51 years later. Again and again, the girls are instructed that they need to focus on their looks and demeanor. A teacher in what appears to be a fashion design class repeatedly refers to her students as having “heavy legs.” For a public school in a large Northeastern city, Northeast High School was also overwhelmingly white. Only late in the film do we see a black student, who talks for an extended time in the classroom, while the other students listen.
I don’t think Northeast is an exam school like Boston Latin or the Stuyvesant High School in New York, but I do get the impression that it is more of an academically elite school than your typical high school. One scene shows that the school had a space research program complete with a mock space capsule from which three students emerge after a 5-day simulated space flight. Wiseman’s choice of an atypical school is not the only element of bias. It’s clear that the 75 minutes selected from five weeks of filming focuses on conflict that pushes the message of high school as a place of arbitrary authoritarianism. There is not a single scene in the entire film that just shows teenagers interacting with one another, an important aspect of any high school day. Stylistically, I like how Wiseman will focus the camera on a person’s hands as they speak or listen.
What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:
There’s a throughline in the high school experience that I think many viewers can relate to. On the other hand, this film is a document of a place and time. Some things we’ll be happy are in the past, such as the girls’ gym rompers that look like they were made out of canvas bags. Other things I’m sad are gone, such as the distinctive accents that seem to be less and less prominent in America these days.
If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:
Watch the movie Eighth Grade, which while fictional, is a very honest depiction of school life in the 2010s.
2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:
And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:
And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.