Director Keva Rosenfield Contrasts American High Schools in the 80’s to now

All American High: Revisited is just that. A recap on the 1985 documentary that followed the Finnish exchange student Rikki’s assimilation into the ways of the American High School (with that Californian tinge). The original 16mm negative has been restored to 2K and reformatted for the big screen. It also includes an additional section that takes place 30 years later, where we revisit with some of the classmates.

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These kids really give you access to everything. You’re there for the keggers and even the post prom after parties. If you were to do the same thing tracking students today would that access be different? 

That’s the best question. People don’t usually ask that, but I think about that all the time — and my senses say absolutely not. [It’s] because of the way that the technological advances have taken form in this generation, it’s so significant. These kids were not aware of what the power of a camera was, and the consequences of being photographed. They had a freer, open, much more uninhibited, basic ‘you make the mistakes of childhood’ sort of way, and they didn’t care. I think now because there’s so much documentation you know [like] selfie culture, and posting online on social media — there’s no distance between an action and the publication of that action.  There was this moment of impact vs a moment of response that were separated — and now they’re the same. Something happens and there’s an immediate response. I don’t think I would have access because the response time would be so fast and also just culturally — I think people behave differently because the technology makes them behave differently. I mean those kids were in a bubble in a way.

I think there’s a couple of things, a lot of cultural markers as well as technologically. 9/11 for example, there’s a lot of things that happened between that time. I think if I were to make this film today and say ‘let’s find out about what the values and attitudes of a generation of a high school class is…’  I’d probably do a workshop with the senior class and have all of them shoot all this footage — and then I could work with it by editing it. But I don’t think [today] someone from the outside could get that same footage on the inside. That might be an interesting film. 

Would you ever make that film? 

Well you know it’s a more sophisticated, fearful, and litigious culture. I mean the school board (for All American High: Revisited) gave us complete access on and off campus. They saw the proposal and said ‘Yeah that sounds interesting’. Now will a school board, or parents allow that sort of photography to happen? Maybe not, I think everyone’s much more sophisticated. And I think that’s it really, there used to be a naiveté about the power of the camera, and now everyone is empowered by a camera in their pocket.

I’ve actually always been more interested in what your generation has to say. It’s interesting to see people who lived it and see themselves younger. But more interesting, to be honest, is what you generation has to say, and what Rikki’s daughter’s generation has to say. There’s this guy about thirty, when I showed it at the Roxy theater, who said “I think that’s sort of the last generation where you get to be a teenager” [laughs]. There was a time when being a kid, and being stupid, and not worrying about your future — all that stuff had a purity to it. Now things are so rigid. Those kids, I mean they had some academics, not a lot [laughs] but the Rite of Passage for being a teenager was primarily social. Now there’s so much pressure to perform, and get into the right school, and get into the job market, the pressures are so much different now. 

I learn more talking to people like you than people who lived that past. We shot a lot of footage of Rikki’s daughter that we didn’t put in the movie, but I remember there was a sort of longing. At one point, she said, “You had lots of parties! It seems like all you did was party” [laughs] and Rikki said  “Well, that’s true.” So there is a sort of longing. I think growing up always should be this rite of passage, it shouldn’t be so monitored. 

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There’s a woman in the film that talks about helicopter parenting. And she says that since they lived this reckless youth there’s no way she was gonna let her kids do that. And in a way the consequences are that people are less social, they don’t wanna get involved with other people. Looking back it doesn’t really seem like there was a bad side. That’s the main thing that I learned. I expected, because of the emphasis on social rites of passage and all this sort of fun iconic teenage high-school stuff, that there could be a serious consequence a generation later. [Maybe] He’s homeless now, or maybe he’s in a meth lab in a desert, so I thought there might be some serious damage. And in fact, it was the opposite. From the 35 kids that I spoke to, none of them are, you know, the CEO of a multinational corporation or anything, but basically all of them are citizens paying taxes, raising a family… And it made me think that learning and education are different, sometimes you learn on your own and sometimes you learn from the education system imposed upon you. But mostly I think you learn about what you’re interested in after High School. When you want to do something, and you’re driven. I think most people find their calling after High School. So I think learning happens at different stages and different intensities, and it’s okay if not all of it happens in High School you know? [laughs] It’ll happen in your twenties more likely, not in your 16’s-18’s when you’re worried about what you’re wearing.  

 By the way, that’s a long a winded answer, but I just like talking to people who haven’t lived through it. Because it’s almost like witnessing life on Mars. 

It was a shock to see [for me] just how many kids were being sociable in class. Even the kids who were ‘punished’ for being late by being forced to sing in front of the class seemed to be having fun.

There was another guy who was shocked that the kid was dancing with his shirt off! He said now they’d never let us do that! And I’m like really? There’re other things to learn outside of the academic part of it, and it’s a balancing act. I hadn’t seen the film in a couple of decades. You know, it was sitting in a corner of a storage unit until I just stumbled across it. And I thought: I wonder if this has any relevance to [today] or any contrast to this technological divide. I’m not someone who’s sentimental and says everything in the past is better, I don’t believe that. But I do think there’s a consequence to the pace of information and the dependence on checking your cell phone every 15 minutes as opposed to making eye contact [laughs]. It’s a different world. There’s this article I read recently about a midwestern High School that canceled all the High School dances because no one would show up. All the kids wanted to be at their house texting each other, their social life was through texting, and whatever else in their own privacy. So people are social, but they’re being social in a different way, and that’s interesting. And that’s without passing judgment, and that’s probably not across the board, but the curve is going in that direction and not back to “PARTY!” It’s not going back to Animal House. [Laughs] 

But I appreciate that question as opposed to “What was the original idea?” but I think that’s the core of what the film is about — if it has any resonance at all, it’s because of that. It was a documentary you know, it’s not like a John Hughes movie that was scripted, I just pointed a camera. There was no — I didn’t tell anyone what to do. I was embedded in that culture shooting everything for a year. What you see is the real thing. Those were the real clothes they wore to school, and they thought they looked good in those clothes! [laughs]

If you were to make the same kind of film today, would it be as special (considering how much content is out there)? 

Well, it’s hard to say! I think if we time warped ourselves 30 years from now, let’s say you funded this project [laughs], and all of a sudden there’s all this footage off cell phones or whatever. Right now we’re in the zeitgeist of all this, but if we talked about this in 30 years that might be very interesting. Because we’ll look back with a certain nostalgia, and we’ll be like oh remember when Apple was the biggest company in the world? Or remember when Youtube was around? So in a way it’s a time capsule. It may have a resonance, who knows. We might look back and be like “Remember when we talked to each other, remember when we were texting!?” So it’s hard to say. But I think one thing that is the same, and that is timeless, is growing up. So the rite of passage of learning who you are and finding yourself in the world, that happens independently of any culture. I showed this at SXSW, and someone asked “How did the school board react once they saw it?” I showed it to them, and they were happy to see, and if there was any criticism at all, it may have been about the education and that I focused on the social aspects. But I never intended to make a film about the education system, I was only really interested in the social aspect, and Rikki’s story and how she was socialized. 

And a guy next to me who was the monitor said, “Had you made a film about education, you wouldn’t be standing here thirty years later because no one is interested.” And so what you’ve made a film about is the exuberance of youth, and that’s timeless.

I’m curious about what else stood out to you while you were watching it. 

I thought the marriage/how to be a single woman classes were interesting. I don’t know if that was as interesting then as it is now.

It was pretty unique then. Many of them were electives,  unrequired classes like surfing and shop.  

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When making Revisited did you edit any of the original cut? 

No, I want to be very clear about that. It’s frame for frame 100% the original copy. All I touched was the one-minute opening that sets the context for the film. And right when I say goodbye to her in the film, is where the original ended. I didn’t want to alter the purity of it. I didn’t want to manipulate anything from that era. What I did was I remastered it, I did a 2k transfer from the 16mm. So the original format was 3×4 like a square, and HD is more rectangular. I also remixed the audio, but I didn’t change anything. That’s they key. I was presenting the film plus an update. Because that’s what I knew to be the value of that film. 

Did you ever consider it? 

Well in the very beginning I did. The template is there, I don’t know how familiar you are with Michael Apted’s series like 7 Up! Or 21 Up! where he revisits these people every 7 years, and he intercuts that footage. But when I first screened the film with that original footage, I realized it works as a piece of history and if I intercut it people will suspect something. So I made the decision after that screening that I’d present that footage then give you an update. 

While making the original film, did you ever think it would become a time capsule. Or did you ever intend it to be? 

No, never, not in a billion years! I was working as an editor at a documentary place before I became a director, and this was the first thing I had got to direct. I liked the subject, and I liked this movie called High School by Frederick Wiseman, and back then it was called this thing called cinéma vérité — which is a fly on the wall documentary approach. So I was influenced by that and John Hughes movies. And it got me a career in directing which I’ve done since then. But there’s no way back then that I would ever put myself in that time warp machine and say let’s see what happens! So it was a really fun project to go back to something you’ve done so early in your life. And the fact that it had any relevance was a sort of humbling and flattering process. It was very personal because of the fact that it was my first film and it was very rewarding to listen to the response from your generation. 

Do you think the root of High School has remained the same,  and/or will remain the same? 

I think there’s a quote from Cameron Crowe that I found while making this film that was something along the lines of “Nothing lasts forever, except High School”.  So I love that quote, and it sort of answers the question. Like even when you get a job the cool people are getting this and the other group that — so I think the groups from High School may replicate themselves as you go through your life. So I’ve always loved that quote, I think he really nailed it.  So I do think, at least in America… I showed the film in Finland actually, and the audience didn’t think cheerleaders actually existed. They thought it was made up for American movies. So when I showed the film they were shocked. So for us I think High School stays the same, there’s still football games and all this stuff. But we live in this culture where public schools have this 60-70 years of the same routine — abroad they goto school and they go back home and they don’t make this social connection to it. Actually tonight I’m showing it in Torrance for the first time, and none of these people have seen it, so I’m interested to see what sort of conversation sparks up from it. 

Are there common questions/reactions people have after seeing the film? 

Well, yours are more interesting than normal. People always ask about the original idea, but I think yours are more right on and more in line with how I got excited about this project. I’m more interested in the then vs now aspects, than the then aspects. The then aspects are interesting but only in relation to how it plays in today’s world.  What’s the same, what’s different? What’s enduring, what’s temporal? Those are the most resonant things. It’s fun to look at the style and the music and things like that, but on a deeper level it has a different layer now because of time. So even if I were to think of it back then like ‘Are we gonna do a recap in 30 years?’ which is absurd to think about, there’s no way I’d be able to predict what that would be — Because time is the biggest factor. You look through something differently through the lens of time than you do when you’re in it. 

It’s interesting — I think in just ten years I’d react to this same footage differently than I would today. 

I think with the speed that things are going today that you’re actually right. Who knows where we will be honestly. But all of the things we’ve been talking about today, the new apple iPhone, or whatever, that is all going to be history in ten years. None of that will be around. Nothing lasts forever. I guess that’s why I like that Cameron Crowe quote. Because you’re always stuck in growing up. We’re all trying to grow up, but I think that late adolescence is right on the verge of becoming of someone. You’re still trying to figure it out. And I think that’s what the attraction is to all these teen movies. Being a teenager is not all fun, some of it can be very painful.

Check out Keva Rosenfield’s All American High Revisited here at Amazon, available now for purchase/rental.