Chain Camera, directed by Kirby Dick, documents a small segment of 16 teen working class, racially diverse, students’ lives as part of a larger project to allow young people to tell their own stories through film. 10 cameras were distributed to students of John Marshall High School, a diverse high school in California and site for popular tv and films that lacked any similar diversity, with instructions to film their lives and then pass the cameras on every 7 days. The cameras were passed for the entire 1999-2000 school year, producing over 700 hours of footage from 200 different teens in attendance.
Dick edited the videos to highlight the stories he found most compelling. He wittles the stories highlighted down to 5 minutes or so each, not nearly enough to tell anyone person’s story but long enough to evoke a bevy of emotions and questions. And while he does a great job of highlighting racial and sexual diversity, and including differently-abled young people, the film is dominated by male voices and is seemingly absent of transgender youth. Of the 15 people included, 9 are young boys. On the positive side, the stories they tell us about manhood are often compellingly insightful and could easily help young men talk about their pressures and concerns. On the negative side, not only are girls voices minimized in a documentary that had 1000s of videos to choose from, but the way the stories are edited, some key information about sexuality, abuse, and self-image appear to have been taken out. What we are left with are stories that hint at sexual assault, forced prostitution, sexual prowess, and the meaning of body image and social interaction for girls. Girls also seldom appear in their own right in this documentary, while 3 of the girls tell their own stories, the other 3, and one featured in another person’s video, are joint videos with their boyfriends or fathers; in one case, their girlfriend. In at least three cases, the boys/men dominate the videos even tho they are credited as girls stories. Finally, there is one video that shows a father masterbating in the background (hand inside his pants), after a torrent of anti-woman cursing, while his young daughter watches tv a few feet away. Like all of the videos, the editing is done behind the scenes, and there are no guiding voice overs or captions during the youth’s stories, so this moment, much like that of a girl who says she wants to be an exotic dancer and talks about suicide and rape, go on examined.
The film is most successful in capturing the way that young people saw their lives, their families, and their social relationships. Almost all of the youth talk about the complex racial relationships in their high school which has over 41 different ethnic and racial groups, including both white and poc immigrants. Many admit that they have misconceptions or bigotry toward other groups, including between immigrants and native born, Latinos and black people, and people who will only date white people or have “a black thing.” And while most of them seem to only highlight friends in their same racial group, many are dating across race.
Most of the youth also talk openly and honestly about single parent and low income households. They tell stories about their mothers persevering in economic hardship, looking out for them over all else, and being abused or abandoned by male partners. Boy’s discussions of how they see their mothers or how the things that happen to their mothers impact them are particularly interesting b/c they highlight the messages young men get from a sexist society and how they internalize those while still idolizing or idealizing their mothers.
Many of the respondents also discuss drugs and one youth even films his first time smoking pot. They discuss their drug use, their decisions about drugs, and whether or not their friends use. These stories highlight both the mundane and the horrible. And they are far more interesting than the sex jokes that Dick feels compelled to include. All tho, there is one video that runs like a failed sex positive how-to that does highlight a certain disturbing dynamic between young boys and girls.
I was also concerned about the story of a differently-abled young man that clearly showed the typical ableist dynamic between sexually awakening young differently-abled boys and able bodied girls who have no understanding of dis/ability. His story seems particularly disheartening as girls laugh at and mock him, all the while pretending to be his friends. In thinking about it juxtaposed against the differently-abled girl in the film, who says she is “addicted to sex”, I wonder how the dynamic of hormones, sexuality, and gender combine with ability to make differently-abled youth particularly vulnerable to exploitation or abuse (in this case jokes and mocking) and how that in turn impacts their own self-expression. As the young man says “I’m still afraid of girls” and his own parents mock him.
There are a lot of pull out clips in this documentary that could foster discussion with youth about oppressions, survival, and their developmental struggles. The documentary has already been included in courses on autobiography and form and would certainly fit in a soc-anth department. It could also be helpful in the Education Department to encourage education students to think about how “behavioral problems” are actual symptomatic of other issues that may need attention or how to help students who are going through things succeed in school and believe in themselves. When I see 3 of 7 girls express negative self-esteem and boys failing or turning to drugs b/c they fear their home lives or their perceived lack of a future, I worry that we are still not doing enough to provide at least one safe place for youth in this world where they can dare to dream. That is not an indictment of middle and high school teachers, who work under much more extreme conditions than I think we professors do, but rather a statement about where practice needs to catch up with theory or praxis needs to better reflect real life.
Ultimately, if you are interested at all in youth culture this documentary should appeal. If you work with youth, I highly recommend it, but would argue that it needs to be paired with more stories from girls and transgender youth, and might be best used over time as individual stories and discussion. It’s most positive aspect is also the one that will require active participation in discussing the documentary however you view it: highlighting youth’s voices and vision’s of themselves and their worlds unaccompanied by analysis. (However, do not mistake this for free form as this film has been highly edited.)