Directed by: Frederick Wiseman
Premise: A documentary about the happenings in a Philadelphia high school circa 1968.
What Works: Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has had a distinguished career with films such as Hospital and Central Park and Titicut Follies. His movies were generally shot in an observatory or cinema verite style and portray institutions and the way individuals behave inside of those institutions. In 1968, Wiseman and his crew filmed the goings on at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. The film doesn’t follow any particular students or staff members. It is instead a collage of images and sequences portraying life inside of the school. The resulting film is a slice of life from the late 1960s that is fascinating as a time capsule of a particular era. Documentaries like this provide a look at the styles and behaviors of an earlier generation as well as the way in which people related to each other inside a physical space. But High School goes a step further as it captures the way institutions, in this case schools, mold the people operating inside of them. Ironically, High School isn’t really about the students but about the teachers and staff. It’s the teachers who do the majority of the talking and a lot of the footage portrays students obediently following the rules or being dressed down for breaking them. High schools, both then and now, have seemingly total control over the lives of students and enforce rigid parameters of dress and decorum. This film demonstrates the way a high school education isn’t so much about training young people in reading, writing, and arithmetic but more about the transmission of cultural values. The documentary takes interest in not just what is taught but the way it is taught and the filmmakers frame a lot of the sequences with a regard for the power dynamic between pupils and staff. The crew was given extraordinary access (it is inconceivable that such a documentary could be made today) and the film lays out the totalitarian nature of secondary education.
What Doesn’t: High School was shot in 1968, when the country and the culture were on the cusp of radical change. This film doesn’t really capture that. It portrays the school as an institution that was largely closed off from the outside world. There are some vague references to the war in Vietnam and to the civil rights movement but most of the documentary is isolated from the rest of the world. That’s part of the point of High School. It’s about the way in which the educational system is a world unto itself and has total control over the lives of its students. But the one weakness of High School as a time capsule is its lack of historical context. Then again, that criticism is a result of hindsight.
DVD extras: Frederick Wiseman’s films are available on the Kanopy streaming service which is accessible for free with a library card.
Bottom Line: High School is an unsettling documentary about life inside a secondary school. It’s an effective time capsule but its real value is a look at the way institutions shape the people operating inside of it and how education both reflects and molds the culture.
Episode: #710 (August 5, 2018)