In her 1999 Academy Award-nominated documentary On the Ropes, director Nanette Burstein traveled to the East Coast to tell the story of three aspiring boxers from Brooklyn as they trained for the most important tournament of their lives. Three years later, she followed up the success of her first film by heading to the West Coast to film the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, adapted from Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ autobiography.
Now, Burstein finds herself in small-town America with the documentary American Teen. The film follows five students from the Midwest as they attempt to survive their high school years.
During a phone interview with the Current, Burstein, 38, talked about what she hoped to illustrate by documenting the lives of the teenagers, her own high school memories, and what advice students should take once the big ride is over.
Of all the high schools in all of America, why did you choose Warsaw Community High School in Indiana?
I think there is a timelessness about the heartland of our country. I wanted to do it in a town that only had one high school, because I thought there would be a lot more social pressure in a place like that.
What kind of high school did you go to in Buffalo?
It was a small high school, but Buffalo is a big city, and there are a lot of places to escape. I wondered what would have happened if I hadn’t had that. I wondered if high school would have been that much tougher.
Did you belong to any cliques?
Yes, I started out in the more popular clique in high school during my freshman year and ended up a more bohemian, arty chick as school went on. I definitely had friends from different cliques and still hung out with `the popular crowd` to an extent, but I wasn’t nearly as close to them as before.
What were you hoping to capture in the lives of these teens?
I was hoping to explore the struggle to form your identity at that age. I wanted to show the honest emotions that go along with that — the insecurities, the heartache, the first love, the vulnerability, the larger-than-life moments you feel at that age where everything seems too enormous and significant.
Were there any stories at other high schools you discovered during location scouting that you wish you could have used?
There was one story very much like Romeo and Juliet. This blonde, Caucasian girl was madly in love with a Mexican boy, and her parents were completely against it. She was basically kicked out of her house. It was really amazing to see this first love and this blatant racism on the part of the parents. They were really open about it, too. They didn’t mind it being filmed.
Do you think it’s easier or harder today to be an American teen?
I think it’s harder to some extent due to technology. I think communication is much faster, and, as result, more vicious and more regrettable at times. But everything else is very similar. There is this rite of passage that everyone goes through where high school keeps repeating itself over and over in every single generation.
Do you still look back on your high school years?
(Laughs) I had a very traumatic prom night. But there are definitely unforgettable moments — both good and bad — from high school that standout today for me. Making this film has reminded me of them more and more.
Now, I have to ask you: What happened during prom night?
(Laughs) Uh, it’s a long story. I had my heart broken. I ended up on a street corner outside my boyfriend’s house crying hysterically at four or five in the morning until my friend found me and picked me up.
Talk to me about the decision to use animation in the documentary.
There is so much going on in your inner life and so much wishful thinking that happens when you’re a teenager, I thought animation seemed like the perfect tool to illustrate that. In documentaries you’re normally limited to showing just talking heads, which isn’t really a very visceral experience when compared to animation where everything is surreal.
Many recent high school graduates are getting ready to start their first year of college. Do you have any advice for them?There is a whole world out there and you can certainly reinvent yourself if you weren’t feeling like you were being true to yourself in high school. You really are in a fishbowl up until that point in life.