No lights, no crew, no rules.
The students at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles had an interesting 1999-2000 school year. At some point during the year, each of the 4,192 students was given a video camera by documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick. The teens were given no instructions, other than to record their own lives for an entire week. From the whole school, 16 students were chosen to have their footage edited into Chain Camera, a slice-of-life glimpse at high schools today. After winning rave reviews at film festivals and showing up occasionally on cable, this explosion of young America has now stormed onto DVD.
In 16 quick-moving snippets, we get a look at our subjects through their own eyes. Tim stages pro wrestling matches in his room and bemoans the fact that he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Leo creates a rather unique comedy sketch, as do Lisa and Alan. For Cinnamon, it’s all about the challenges she faced when everyone found out she was dating a girl. Victor shows off his musical skills. Winfred’s had some tough luck lately, but he’s no quitter. Amy giggles her way through the week, doting over her boyfriend. Ethan is awkward and naïve, but has a great attitude nonetheless. Manuel represents the intellectual crowd. Stephanie’s segment is more about her father than it is about her. Mena discusses race issues, Jesse is all about politics, and Rosemary, Fernando and Shannon all offer some frank sex talk. Then, everyone reunites for the prom, and, finally, graduation.
We do not envy the challenge director Kirby Dick and his team must have faced in the editing room for this project. An estimated eight hours a day times seven days in a week equals 56 hours of footage. Multiplied by 4,192 students, that leaves 234,752 hours of raw material. That’s around 9,700 days of footage—26 years’ worth. That they were somehow able to turn all this into a movie is amazing. That it’s a pretty good movie is even more amazing.
The 16 kids chosen to appear in the movie do an admirable job of capturing their lives on camera. Some of the most interesting moments are when they’re just hanging out, chatting about whatever. It’s often been said that the great contradiction of screenwriting is that a real conversation will always be more interesting than the world’s most well-scripted dialogue. Whether it’s Amy and her boyfriend cuddling in her bedroom or Mena debating racial issues with her friends, the conversations are always interesting.
But that’s not exactly the movie’s big selling point, which is all the frank talk about sex, drug use, and general lewd behavior. Not only is sex not far from anyone’s mind, no one’s shy about discussing it in the most graphic way possible. Drugs are also discussed, and even seen here and there. But the movie isn’t all shock value. Remember, when the director gave these kids their cameras, no one knew what they’d do with them. So one the one hand, the movie runs down the “big issues” checklist, hitting on topics like the aforementioned sex and drugs, but also bulimia, racism, homosexuality, grades, parents, economic status and more. But on the other hand, the kids’ honesty and general positive enthusiasm keeps the whole thing from degenerating into “after school special” mode. Even when they’re down on their luck, the students all seem to have great attitudes, both the main subjects as well as the ones we see on the periphery.
Many have criticized the movie for moving too fast, and for not spending enough time with each of the kids. This is a valid complaint—just as we start to get to know one of them, everything shifts, and we’re on to the next segment with someone else. One girl mentions her bulimia, almost in passing, and then it’s seemingly forgotten as the narrative jumps ahead to the next student. This goes back to the dilemma faced in the editing room. Spending more time with some subjects means cutting out others. This means fewer kids would have been in the movie, which goes against the wide mix of personalities the movie benefits from. Unless it’s to be re-edited as a TV miniseries, the filmmakers did what they could by packing as much material as they could into the movie’s slim running time.
Even though it’s interesting watching, one walks away from Chain Camera wondering just what the “message” is. Not every film has to have a moral of course, but in this case it’s more a feeling of not knowing just what we were supposed to gain from the experience. Perhaps some of the more naïve upper-class types will have their eyes opened to the fact that yes, teenagers do indeed use curse words. But for the rest of us, it’s some nice slice-of-life scenes and imagery, and that’s about it.
Although recorded with ordinary video cameras available at any store, without the benefit of any lighting equipment or CGI enhancements, the movie looks pretty good on DVD. Some grain and washed-out colors are the result of the original source and not the transfer, which is quite clean. Even though they had little to no experience behind the camera, the kids do a good job on the technical side of things, so there are no overly dark or blurry shots, like the ones seen on typical home videos. The sound is merely adequate. All the dialogue is clear, but the music is sometimes flat, whether it’s one of the many rock songs playing, or the original score by Futurama composer Christopher Tyng. Marshall High’s resident musician Victor would no doubt have preferred a 5.1 track.
In the commentary track, the director and producer show their obvious fondness for the movie, and recount the positive experience they had in getting to know the kids through their footage. Four of the students—Cinnamon, Amy, Ethan and Jesse—even show up for their segments, giving hints about what they and their classmates have been up to in life after high school. The deleted scenes and segments are too brief to be of much value, and would not have added much to the finished film. The interview with the director goes over much of the same material as the commentary, though. “Woman With a Movie Camera” has producer Dody Dorn mimic the Chain Camera experience by filming a week of her life while in Morocco on the set of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. Sir Ridley, unfortunately, does not make an appearance. Also included are the theatrical trailer and some alternate opening credits.
With all the extras on the disc, one key behind-the-scenes question goes unanswered. Just how was all that raw footage compiled into a single movie? Perhaps film editor Matthew Clarke could have been included in the interviews or commentary. He might have helped explain why these 16 kids were chosen out of the entire school, and what was in the hours of material not used.
Is this group of sex-obsessed youth really the future of our country? If so, we could do a lot worse.