Film Movement, a subscription DVD series with the tagline "A Declaration of Independents" offers up a new film every month, with an added short subject. The idea is to provide a class venue for titles that win awards at festivals, but perhaps are not picked up by majors or even given a run on the arthouse circuits - that stay busy catering to the Amelie crowd.
The film for August 2003 is OT: Our Town, a DV docu about what used to be called Inner City kids. It has some interesting characters, sociology both inspiring and depressing, and just enough uplift to involve us emotionally.
OT: Our Town overcomes the cynic's first gripe: documentaries that focus on ethnic social problems to guarantee feel-good audience emotions. It shows Dominguez High School for what it is, a rat's nest of poverty where gunfire is heard in the night and cop cars drive up and down the campus halls. It has to be impossible for a student to feel pride for this place. Worse, what extracurricular activity money there is goes to the school's successful sports programs that provide a possible success exit for star players. We see one. He's a happy 6' 7" basketball player that we're told went straight from high school into the majors. Some success story.
The two teachers that initiate the play are obviously fighting an uphill battle. The school gives them no backing and even refuses to allow the basketball court to be used as an auditorium. A cast comes together (we don't see the selection process, always an ugly part of high school plays) and the teachers use every strategy they know to raise interest in Thorton Wilder's story of Grover's Corners, which is about as universal a play as can be found. Clips from the PBS Hal Holbrook version are interspersed with the Compton teens trying to say the same dialogue written for 1902 New England. The kids don't dig it.
The play as presented is no great shakes, but that's not the issue. Filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy bears down on the actors as they learn (or don't learn) their lines, and deal with the stigma that accompanies sincere effort in their teen society. A classmate expresses the basic attitude: anything that has anything to do with Dominguez High, they want nothing to do with. Hand-drawn posters for the play are vandalized.
The kids are a dramatic bunch. The actress playing the Stage Manager (Ebony Starr Norwood-Brown) has a complicated home life, where two saintly older women (one just a babysitter-turned substitute mother) lovingly care for a large brood of children from mostly absent parents. The Mexican-American kid playing George Gibbs (Archie Posada) has a positive personality and comes from a home bursting with religious imagery. 'Emily Webb' (Armia Robinson) is a rail-thin girl with a squeaky voice and an inability to concentrate. Mr. Webb is a heavy-set, serious young man (Christopher Patterson) who claims to be alienated from his father. And a vaguely rebellious Latin kid (Jose Perez) is a depressive and talks about suicide a lot.
The doc covers rehearsal sessions and the ceaseless efforts of the two teachers to get the play on its feet and inspire a minimum commitment from the students. One of them uses heavy criticism followed by feel-good camaraderie to keep the group together, a gambit that works. The kids eventually learn their lines. The attitudes and selfishness give way to the expected solidarity once the showdates come and they have a real platform stage on which to perform; and on show night, they of course all behave as if they were professional troopers from the start. Much of the opening night crowd is the expected family and friends, and the outpouring of pride and accomplishment are authentic and heartwarming. The show ends with a coda explaining how the theater program at Dominguez has continued with funding, and that it's spelled success for the teachers.
The doc is edited in what I'd call a hip-hop style. The cutting is fast but not too fast, with a few exposure tricks and flash cuts popping in along with the street music score. It makes what's shown easy to digest, and obscures what's not shown: how the casting was accomplished, what the school administration had to say about an outside documentarian coming in, anything behind the scenes with the teachers (we're given a few speeches) or why the kids joined up in the first place.
So here's the only problem with OT: Our Town. I've cut many shows about 'inspired' students at various LAUSD school dramatic programs, even one grant-inspired turkey of a boondoggle that emulated the movie Fame. Those 'educational programs' tended to attract kids that want to be Stars, not kids with talent or an interest in the theater. Filmmaker Kennedy has no problem getting inspirational-looking closeups of his Stars staring nobly or plaintively out of frame ... these kids are often performing for his camera. Raised on Television, they're naturals.
The kids in OT: Our Town are just in a play, but we still get the idea that a few now think they're on the way toward great careers. One awkwardly sincere girl who can't find the exit for her scene, announces she's going to be a Star. She's possibly kidding, but I think not.
The key to these kids is attention and official acknowledgment that they exist, which they get precious little of. It's a lot for them to carve out their own purpose in life. And we can tell that they know that this docu, not the play they're supposed to be in, is their big break. Most of them are just too honest and uncomplicated to play-act, but I cringe at all the dramatics that are being consciously put-on for the benefit of attention. The beneficiaries of the movie are the filmmaker, the teachers (who earned everything they get) and the exceptional student like Miss Norwood-Brown, who continued on to college. If the rest of the cast gets an ego boost from their bit of fame, we can just hope that some of them have the brains and character to do something with themselves.
I also worry about miraculously perfect feel-good shots like the late-night view of Chris Patterson walking home with his dad hugging him, the dad he earlier talked about as being uncaring and absent. It's a heart tug, but it's awfully convenient and pat. It's a sad thing to have to wonder if the filmmaker was a fast-trigger genius to get that perfect shot of a perfect moment - or if it was staged.
Film Movement's DVD of OT: Our Town is excellently encoded and presented. The DV images are well transfered (I'd guess from tape, not from film) and the sound is fine. Also presented on the disc is a short subject, Border, from filmmaker Annette Solakoglu. It's an okay parable that pulls in John Lennon's Imagine for a finale.
Another 'bonus footage' extra shows a later Dominguez student production attended by the 'past' cast members of OT. There are no subs or closed captions, which is understandable.
The Film Movement is an interesting experiment in movie distribution. I didn't find OT: Our Town for sale on Amazon, but it can be bought at their website, where other past Film Movement releases are available. This month, they have a Belgian Drama called Hop and they're promising an upcoming title with Philip Seymour Hoffman. To watch the movie, one must first sit through a brief promo for The Film Movement, something I'd be incensed at from a studio, but can easily tolerate from this courageous little DVD company doing its best to make a go of things.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
OT: Our Town rates: