A few years ago I made a film about my son Danny's junior year in high school called The Band, which aired on P.O.V. in 1998. While I was making that film, Hannah, a friend of Danny's, turned eighteen. When, on her birthday, I asked her how it felt, she responded "Eighteen is the oldest you will ever be."
She went on to explain that all your life until then, eighteen looms as a monumental goal - the pinnacle of youthdom. Never again will you have a goal like that in your life - thus, it's the oldest you will ever be.
Her insight stuck in my head and became the seed for Senior Year, a 7 hour documentary series following 15 high school seniors for the entire school year. The nine months of production was completed on graduation day, June 22, 2000.
My goal with Senior Year is to make a series that truly captures that exhilarating and terrifying moment in time that Hannah was describing, and to do it in the particular context of the world inhabited by teenagers today. So I went back to my alma mater, Fairfax High in Los Angeles, and found that it had evolved from a white, middle class, primarily Jewish school with a reputation for sending lots of kids to the Ivy League (myself not included), into a wildly diverse, exciting campus with students from over thirty different countries and just about every walk of life in the city.
I spent one semester at the school meeting dozens of kids to find the ones we would be following, and went to the UCLA and USC film schools to hire a diverse group of young, talented filmmakers to spend a year living in and filming their world. The result, of course, is Senior Year, a series that is both far ranging and extremely intimate, both timeless and timely.
It's timeless because it is about something that, in it's essence, everyone either has gone through, is going through or will go through. And it is timely because it is about a generation that is living a life never before seen in this country. This is the generation that has grown up in the intense cultural and racial mix that exploded into many parts of this country and the world starting in the 1980's. For them, race and nationality have a different meaning than they do for their parents' or any previous generation, and "diversity" isn't a concept - it's their world. The kids of Senior Year are on the cutting edge of a new culture emerging in this country, one who's outlines and contours are yet to be known. They are neither a melting pot nor a salad bowl - they are individuals who, if we listen, can be our teachers and guides into the new century.
David Zeiger, Director
There is always someone behind every media message. The person behind the message of Senior Year is David Zeiger - who not only directed, but produced the series. We asked him some questions about the show. Here is what he had to say. Interview by Anthony of Just Think
Why did you create the show?
My last film, called The Band, was about my son's junior year in high school in Atlanta. I spent the year filming him and his friends in the marching band, and the film was broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. in 1998. That was a personal story about how both he and I were dealing with him growing up, but it made me want to explore more deeply the world of teenagers today. I went to my own high school, Fairfax in L.A., and discovered that it had gone from being all white to the most diverse school in the city--and that got me even more interested. I realized that the world teenagers live in today is dramatically different from any before them because of that diversity, and I knew that a series about them would be very revealing and inspiring.
Who is the target audience for the show?
It's really everyone. I want it to be a series that teenagers will strongly relate to because it presents their world in a way never before seen on television; but also one that adults are drawn into because they find kids with complex, involving stories.
Did the show change the way you looked at teens?
Yes. Mainly, I found the complexity of their lives to be much greater than I expected. I knew that teenagers were smart, but the depth of their intelligence was always surprising. I also found that the culture mixing and innovating, mainly through music, was way beyond what I expected.
What do you hope to achieve from the show (what was your purpose)?
I want adults in particular to question their own assumptions about teenagers, and for teens I want it to be something that empowers and inspires them.
What values or points of view do you hope to get across?
Mainly, that this generation is bringing a whole new outlook into the world, and the way they are attacked, criminalized and distorted in the media and public perception has to be sharply challenged.
What did you choose not to show and why?
We shot over 1200 hours of footage, so there is a lot that we didn't show. But principally, my pact with the kids was that we would not show anything they felt strongly shouldn't be there. We didn't show anyone using drugs, which was their choice.
Did the show meet your expectations?
I think so. It certainly has in terms of the depth of the stories that emerged.
What are your plans for the future?
Mainly, to just chill for a bit once this monster is finished. I also teach at the USC Film School, which I will get back to. But there are more docs in mind, and I am working on a screenplay that I would like to direct.
Did the students get paid?
They each got a $2,000 scholarship at the end of the year.
What are you most proud of?
The closeness we developed with the kids, which comes through in the intimacy of their stories.
What surprised you the most?
The fact that we got this thing done in the first place!
Which character was your favorite?
That's tough to say. The obvious answer is that I loved them all, which I did.
Which show was your favorite?
Hard to say, but I'd have to point to 11 & 12, the two episodes around Prom. I also really love 3, 4, and 8 - 10. Watch out for 13, though - it's a killer.
How is your show different from American High or other "reality" shows about young people?
Principally in how we did it. My goal was to create a collaboration between the students and the filmmakers (I hired 6 young filmmakers from film school--people who could best relate to the kids and their world). So, this became a much more intimate, detailed series. Also, "American High" focused on a more middle class, predominantly white suburban school (largely because it was initially done for Fox), so the nature of the kids and their stories is different. But what both we and "American High" have in common that other "reality" shows don't is that this wasn't a contest or artificially created set of circumstances and relationships. We found our stories in the real lives of the kids.
Did you make a conscious choice to have a cast diverse in race and ethnicity?
Very much. But my first goal was to find kids who had strong, compelling stories.
How did you decide on which students to pick to star in the show?
I spent the entire spring semester of their junior year at the school, meeting as many kids as I could and getting to know them--going to class, interviewing, just hanging out. It took about four months to come up with the final group.
What are your personal demographics and how do they differ from the people in the show?
I grew up in the same part of town that Fairfax is in, but when I was there (1968), we were almost all white, middle class and Jewish. We were much more isolated and insulated than the kids there today.