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Nanette Burstein on today’s American Teen

An interview with the director of the award-winning documentary

By Nathan Lerner

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-08-18


When American Teen played on the festival circuit, Nanette Burstein’s documentary feature about a quintet of seniors in a Warsaw, Indiana high school generated a lot of buzz. At the Sundance Film Festival, Ms. Burstein won the Directing Award in the documentary genre and “American Teen” garnered a Grand Jury Prize nomination. The film has now received a theatrical release.

The 38-year old Burstein was born and attended high school in Buffalo, New York. “I started out my freshman year making an effort to be in the popular group,” she says of her high school days. “I wanted to be accepted, conform to the norm, and worried a lot about what my peers thought of me.”

But Burstein had an epiphany. “I realized that didn’t make me very happy. Many of the kids that I thought were my close friends, turned out not to be very good friends. So I ended up leaving the popular crowed, and just trying to be myself.” That took a little time, too. At one point in her junior year, she sported a pink Mohawk. “But even that wasn’t really me,” she says. “Ultimately, I became more of the bohemian arty type. That’s who I really was and still am today. But it took all four years of high school for me to discover and then feel comfortable expressing my real identity.”

Burstein discussed her exposure to films with contemporary adolescent characters. “I grew up watching teen fiction movies. While I loved many of them, especially those by John Hughes, I felt they often had a one-dimensional aspect to their storylines and character portrayals. From my own experience, I knew that reality was far more intricate, so I wanted to explore those same themes in a nonfiction movie with real teenagers — have it be just as entertaining but more honest.”

Burstein has been intent upon making American Teen for the last fifteen years. “Like most people, I struggled through my own high school years, and I wanted to make a film that explored the very real and intense pressures of being a senior in high school, trying to figure out who you are while pushed by your peers to be a certain way, pressured by your parents as to who you should become, the mounting pressure to make crucial decisions – inevitably, poorly-informed ones - about your future.”

Burstein had previously directed On the Ropes, which captured young African American and Latinos in the impoverished, urban neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. For American Teen, she wanted to focus on a different environment and not repeat the same stories or themes. “The journey began with an epic quest to find the right school and the right cast,” Burstein says. “I chose Middle America because the Midwest is often held up as quintessentially and conventionally American and there is a timelessness about that part of the country. I wanted a town that was economically mixed and racially mixed, though the latter was much harder to come by in the Midwest, so that I could explore how those differences played out in the teen world.”

She adds: “I wanted a town that only had one high school and that was not near a major city because I thought perhaps, the social structure would be more rigid and inescapable – and I was looking for a social pressure cooker. In that kind of environment there is so much scrutiny from your peers. The popular kids are the town royalty and the underdogs and nerdy kids have nowhere to hide. Should something humiliating happen to you at school or if you are an outcast, you cannot get lost in the big city or make friends in a different school in town. Those options don’t exist.”

As a prelude to making the film, Ms. Burstein engaged in exhaustive process, calling hundreds of high schools across the Midwest that met her myriad criteria. She convinced the administrators of 10 of those schools to grant her the access that she would need to shoot the film. Mr. Burstein went to each of those schools and ended up interviewing over 2,000 students. “At that point I was looking for a school that had the most compelling teenagers and stories,” she says. Burstein concluded that Warsaw Community High School in Indiana was the optimal place to shoot the film.

Burstein then began the process of winnowing down the students that her film would follow. “I was looking for teenagers from different social groups or cliques and different economic backgrounds. I was also looking for students that surprised me—that undercut the stereotype or expectation.”

“I was looking for teenagers that had a compelling story that I could follow. They each desperately needed to accomplish something that year.” There was an uncertainty that hovered over the film as she shot it. “I never knew how their stories would end, happy or tragic, but I knew I had strong narratives that would play out on screen.”

Burstein explains the interpersonal dynamics between her and the subjects that she studies. “I become very close with the subjects of all of my documentaries. I choose people that I admire, even if they are complicated and are far from perfect. But for me, they must be very empathetic. I want the audience to root for them and care about them, in the same way that I do. I also know how much time I will be spending with them and want it to be with people I really love being around.”

According to Burstein, her relationships with the subjects of her films helps relax them, “Because that close friendship develops between me and the subjects of my films, they begin to really trust me, and feel comfortable on camera. It is not as though it is an uncaring stranger filming them. It is a close friend who they trust. And this makes an enormous difference. Also I shoot in a very unobtrusive way. I do not light spaces, but use natural light. I shoot with very small crews. Often I would film intimate moments by myself with a very small camera. So because I was so low tech, this also made them forget about the cameras and act like themselves.”

Making American Teen gave Burstein an interesting perspective on the impact of technology on the lives of this generation of adolescents. Between emails, texting, ichats, Facebook, MySpace, and camera phones, communication amongst teenagers has become very confusing and often mean spirited, she says. She cites a particularly poignant example from the film. “A girl sends a topless photo of herself to a boy and it eventually gets sent around to the entire high school, which is a horribly humiliating experience for her.”

“I think because teenagers do not generally think about the consequences of their actions, today’s world of quick, constant and far reaching communication can be devastating for them. With the hit of a button a rumor can be spread instantly by texting to everyone in your address book.”

Burstein says that because of technology, teenagers are used to living a much more public life. They constantly share their personal lives with the public world on the internet, and are also used to analyzing themselves more often because they are constantly doing just that on their web pages. “So sharing their personal lives with a camera was not as much of a leap for them than it would have been for my generation,” she says. “They are also able to articulate their issues far better than my generation was able to. They are still as emotionally vulnerable and insecure as every generation of teenagers, but they seem more aware of it and better equipped to communicate it.”

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