“This school is miserable. It’s cloistered, secluded -it’s completely sheltered from everything that’s going on in the world, and I think it’s wrong. It has to be changed.”
I was fortunate enough to attend a progressive, high-performing high school with an above average lot of students and teachers. This may be part of the reason I actually enjoyed high school, at least as a whole. The awkward shifts from day to day as you search urgently for your identity can’t really be avoided no matter what institution you attend, and the maturity of any high school population may drain your daily allotment of patience, but I thought it was a fun time. However, if I attended Philidelphia’s Northeast High School in the late 60s, I probably wouldn’t have had much of a good time at all. This may be one of the main takeaways from Frederick Wiseman’s fascinating documentary and his most well-known work, High School. While the late 60s public school system seems atrocious upon viewing the film, the fascinating question is why.
This is a film that may seem jarring at first for standard audiences, as Wiseman’s approach to the documentary format is a bit unconventional. You’ll notice that the focus is on the footage itself, and the viewer is left to interpret this footage without much guidance. Little more than a title card and some credits indicate interference on the part of the filmmaker. High School is a fairly simple collection of footage that Wiseman captured while documenting everyday life at Northeast High School. We see various classrooms, hallway encounters, and other simple, familiar scenes straight out of our own high school memories. It feels disjointed at times, but it works in a raw sort of way to convey a sense of objectivity and reality of presentation.
However, as Wiseman has often stated in interviews, his films are anything but objective. The clips he chooses to include are the primary artistic decision in the production of such a film, and they dictate what kind of narrative Wiseman wishes to present to his viewer. In the case of High School, the moments he includes seem to indicate the backwards social nature of public schools such as Northeast in the 1960s. There’s a real sense of time and place as we see views of racial discrimination, sexism and reinforcement of gender roles, and a glorification of subservience and obedience to authority that aren’t nearly as prevalent in today’s high schools. (Although you’d still find these views in many public and private schools today, only to varying degrees.)
The organization of High School‘s clips were of particular interest to me. There isn’t a direct build from the ordinary to the climactic that we would find in a conventional film, but there is an attempt to weave an exciting narrative out of the footage nonetheless. While we see very few of the characters in more than one scene, we get a real progression of the kinds of conflict that can emerge in a public school setting. We start with squabbles over students forgetting to bring their gym uniforms to class, but by the film’s conclusion, we’re left with very personal insights into college readiness, conflicting social views, and a sense of rebellion and fire inside the hearts and minds of students that is stamped out at the hand of the school’s administration. As a fairly recent high school student myself, I found myself sympathizing with many of the students and their plight to be taken seriously by the stone-faced administration. Some may find High School to be a boring film, but I found familiarity and exciting conflict in just about every scene for this reason. Even something as simple as an English teacher reading a poem to her class suddenly finds new cinematic excitement as Wiseman presents it on the screen, depicting an enthusiastic instructor trying to break through the apathy of her classroom and excite some sense of poetry in her students.
If you were to ask where Wiseman falls on the “student vs. administrator” struggle, I would argue that he overwhelmingly falls on the side of the student body. The way he films (and frequently zooms in tightly on the faces of) impassioned students and their demands for change and understanding, or more often the way he portrays them broken and defeated when up against an unsympathetic administrative system, High School is a film that suggests there needs to be a change (as exemplified in the above quote, a speech from one of the film’s most compelling scenes). Now that nearly 50 years have passed since the film’s release, I think many of the themes still apply. Issues of race and gender have improved but still remain dominant in the social conversation in many public schools, and Wiseman’s film makes a compelling argument to include student voices equally in this conversation.
If you’re terribly bored at the idea of watching students sit in a classroom and hearing people argue for 80 minutes, then this isn’t the film for you, though I’d encourage you to give it a shot anyway. If you feel you can sympathize with the high school experience and find familiarity in these scenarios, however, then I really think High School will delight you as a viewer. If only to get a look into the public school system of the late 1960s, it’s a wildly fascinating piece of history. This is a film that really exceeded my expectations for documentary filmmaking and broadened my perception of what these films should look like, and it’s a powerful testament to the way that cinema can utilize the ordinary and the familiar to make a bold statement about change.
Films Left to Watch: 917