Too Controversial for PBS
”From being banned from broadcast on PBS to success on the festival circuit and a theatrical release, even today, it is easy to see why the film was controversial.” “Seventeen” was made as the final film in the “Middletown” series but once finished, it was to be seen until later even after it went on to win the first Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival.
Directed by Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines and produced by Academy Award winner Peter Davis, “Seventeen” is the unvarnished story of a group of seniors in their last year at Muncie’s Southside High School. They are moving toward maturity with a combination of joy, despair, and sense of urgency. They also learn a great deal about life, both in and out of school, and not what school officials think they are teaching, along the way.
Originally expected to air on PBS, it was not aired because there were concerns by some about some of the film’s content that included interracial romance and vulgar language. When the film was subsequently released theatrically, it was hailed by critics as: “one of the most essential films ever made about American youth” and “An earthy mix of disrespect for authority, foul language, drunkenness, pot-smoking, interracial sex, and just hanging out.”
IN the 1960’s and 1970’s, American filmmakers, equipped with a new and refined, easily portable camera and sound equipment, a new kind of documentary came into being. It could speak for itself without voice-over narration like older films.
This is considered to be “one of the best and most scarifying reports on American life to be seen on a theater screen since the Maysles brothers’ ”Salesman” and ”Gimme Shelter.”” There was no plan for theatrical distribution; the film was conceived to be broadcast under the collective title of ”Middletown.” Each of the six was made by a different team of filmmakers who set out to explore some aspect of life in Muncie, Indiana which was the place where seminal sociological studies by Robert and Helen Lynd were done.
Five of the Muncie films were presented by the Public Broadcasting Service in March and April 1982. The sixth, ”Seventeen,” was never shown, apparently because PBS and the underwriting sponsor objected to a lot of the content. This would include, I assume, the rough language and also one of the film’s ”narrative” lines about the rather hysterical romance of a 17-year-old white girl named Lynn and a young black man named Robert. ”Seventeen” simply does not observe the niceties of sit-com land where everything comes out happily at the end.
”Seventeen” raw material, that it has been expertly edited by Miss DeMott and Mr. Kreines, who also co- produced, directed, photographed and recorded the footage. What is raw about it is that is does not remain coherent because the filmmakers did not attempted to place some arbitrary order on the events they witnessed.
We meet a small group of white and black teen-agers, the children of working-class parents, and we observe them in their lives in school, at home, boozing, smoking pot, getting fatally smashed up in auto accidents and, at one point, preparing for a neighborhood race war. Lynn, the pretty, tough-talking high school student is at the center of the film and her pleasure principle is measured by the men in her life (and Robert, her black boyfriend).
Lynn’s mother doesn’t disapprove, but she does say that everything Lynn is doing is designed to upset both blacks and whites in their neighborhood. As it turns out, Robert isn’t all that serious anyway, as his black friends, who seem to be about the most decent people in the film, keep telling her.
Things get really nasty when a cross is burned in Lynn’s yard and when Lynn begins getting threatening phone calls, apparently from Robert’s other girlfriends. Lynn’s reaction is that her mother carries a gun that she is not afraid to use and neither is she. The continuity in the film comes from Lynn and her problems but the movie really gets going when we see moments of casual cruelty and emotional confusion – in the uproarious classroom scenes and in a beer party watched over by Lynn’s life-of-the-party mom, who gently strokes the forehead of one drunk young man who is on the verge of vomiting. Some of it is funny, a lot of it is sad, and all of it dramatizes a pervasive aimlessness and ignorance in the culture of the time.
Even though the soundtrack often is unintelligible, and the lack of any special lighting sources sometimes results in very dark images. The total effect, though, is both disturbing and provocative. ”Seventeen” provides no answers or makes, it just records what was seen. judgments.
I am not sure if this is “direct cinema” or “cinema vérité” but I am sure that is powerful and it contains more truth than any fact-filled historical documentary and more human drama than any Hollywood film that we have ever seen.
“Seventeen” was effectively censored by its corporate sponsor, Xerox and this is something that does not happen on “public” television. Finally we can see thanks to Icarus films.
What makes it worth seeing is the incredible, delicate access that the filmmakers negotiated with the people they were filming. Joel Demott and Jeff Kreines, each armed with a one-man-band 16mm camera and tape-recorder rig, would split up; she filmed with the girls, he with the boys. They lived in Muncie for over a year and filmed exclusively hand-held, wide and close, and rarely ever got an establishing shot; they just hung close with the working-class kids of Muncie’s Southside High School.
There are no graphics, no dramatic score, no catchy montages; there’s hardly even a credit roll. The only score is what the kids listen to in their cars request on their local radio station. The film starts unassumingly, at an excruciatingly slow pace, in Ms. Hartley’s loathsome Home-Economics class, much like the start of any day in high school. The story unfolds slowly and grows with powerful momentum into conflict and chaos and never sensationalizes.
The painful scenes of race and class tension and sexual exploits are all too familiar. “Reality” TV does not have even a hint of the authenticity of the film that is a haunting view into the all-too-real world of working-class teenagers, numbing themselves from the ugly adult culture around them—as the filmmakers say in their own press notes, “fighting and fucking” their way through high school.