In the old days, many of the great documentaries were about hardship in exotic lands (Nanook of the North) or deeply significant world events (Night and Fog, Triumph of the Will). But these days, many of the greatest documentaries are being made in the halls and classrooms of places that, while not exotic, are certainly full of hardship: high schools.
High School, 1968
A master of cinema verite, Frederick Wiseman has been a prolific documentary filmmaker for more than three decades. His work focuses on everyday Americans caught in and attempting to navigate the sometimes dehumanizing bureaucratic systems our society has created, and their titles more or less sum up their subject matter: Hospital, Basic Training, Juvenile Court, Welfare, The Store. One of his best known, appropriately enough, was 1968's High School, which "examined a large, largely white and middle-class Philadelphia high school and the authoritarian, conformist value system inculcated in students by teachers and administrators." More than anything, the movie revealed the unrelenting, soul-crushing dullness that could be high school, and was banned from being shown in Philly for many years.
American Teen, 2008
This movie was so well-constructed and executed by filmmaker Nanette Burstein that the trailer, and certain segments of the movie itself, leave you wondering whether it's a documentary or a piece of slickly-produced narrative fiction. Be assured, it is most definitely a documentary, and if it seems a little cliche at first blush (the jock! the geek! the rebel!) it more than makes up for it by being, well, one of the best movies I saw last year. While many documentaries rely on after-the-fact interviews to reconstruct emotional moments, Teen is always Johnny-on-the-spot; Burstein's intimate, you-are-there style puts you front and center for the emotional rollercoaster/train-wreck that is late adolescence, and you leave the theater feeling like you grew up with the high schoolers she follows. It's totally satisfying and wonderful.
Billy the Kid, 2007
Jennifer Venditti was a casting director in New York who dreamed of making a great documentary about one of the fascinating people she met through her job. When she traveled to a small town in Maine to cast locals in a (fictional) movie about high school, she ran across a very special kid named Billy -- an uncommonly honest, intelligent, and painfully awkward 15-year-old whom she would follow as he navigated the weirdness of high school, dealt with the ever-changing landscape of a broken home, and fell head-over-heels in love, and earnestly attempted to woo, a girl who worked at a local diner. Defensive and suspicious, some teenagers put up walls; Billy can't help but tell it like it is.
Go Tigers!, 2001
Football was born as a Saturday-afternoon pastime in a small town in Ohio, but these days high school football in that town is serious business. Massillon is a town that breeds its young boys to play football, holds back its eighth graders so they can be bigger and stronger ninth grade football players, and has been known to bury its residents in Massillon Tigers-themed coffins. Everything about the high school experience in this town -- and many towns like it across the country -- is shaped by the football team. (Thank God my school didn't have one.)
Hoop Dreams, 1994
Consistently hailed as one of the best documentaries ever, Hoop Dreams follows high schoolers in a very different part of the country playing a very different sport -- inner-city kids from Chicago who grow up dreaming about just one thing: making it into the NBA. Filmmakers Steve James and Peter Gilbert followed two boys from the inner city throughout their high school careers, and the result is an uncommonly revealing film that touches on everything from race relations and poverty to the culture of high school sports. Roger Ebert has been a longtime booster of the film, and writes:
No screenwriter would dare write this story; it is drama and melodrama, packaged with outrage and moments that make you want to cry. ''Hoop Dreams'' has the form of a sports documentary, but along the way it becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America. When the filmmakers began, they planned to make a 30-minute film about eighth-graders being recruited from inner-city playgrounds to play for suburban schools. Their film eventually encompassed six years, involved 250 hours of footage, and found a reversal of fortunes they could not possibly have anticipated.