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Documenting the American Teen: An Interview with Nanette Burstein

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

Image Between movies at the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival I sat down and spoke with Nanette Burstein, the director of the breakthrough documentary American Teen. Nanette was nominated for the Documentary Feature Oscar in 1999 for On the Ropes and she also made the Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture.

MC: So, how do you get from the subject of boxing (On the Ropes) to Robert Evans (The Kid Stays in the Picture) to your current doc which examines teenage life in Indiana?

NB: You know someone pointed out to me that I’ve done the east coast, the west coast and middle America, maybe I’ll have to do a film in the south (laughs). The boxing story I kind of stumbled upon, I wanted to learn how to box, and I was training in a gym in Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn) and found this amazing story about boxers and their incredible passion, an admirable story. Evans is the quintessential Hollywood tale about the guy who’s always spinning his image and it comes back to bite him in the ass. Of course with High School, we’ve all been through it so it’s a personal thing for me, a tumultuous time in my life. I even had a pink Mohawk back then (laughs), high school was such a defining moment for me.

MC: How did you end up choosing Indiana?

NB: Well you see all of those TV shows about rich California kids so I wanted to pick the mid-west and talk to average kids in an economically mixed town. I also needed a school that would cooperate. I interviewed almost 2,000 kids throughout the mid-west, but I wanted to find the school that had the best stories and subjects all in one place and Warsaw, Indiana had it.

MC: So after interviewing all of those kids how did you end up with your four subjects?

NB: I actually started out filming ten kids and ended up with these four. I was looking for people that surprised me. You had the popular girl with so much pressure to get into college; she wasn’t the typical popular girl that you’re used to. They all had this very strong need that they had to accomplish.

MC: These kids are stereotypes in a way but they’re much more interesting than that. They also transcend these stereotypes as well. It’s refreshing because in narrative films teenagers don’t often transcend the stereotype.

NB: Yes, up until recently for sure. We just had Juno and Superbad with real kids that talk like real kids and so on and so forth, and with these movies and my film I really think that we’re heading into a new wave of movies about young people that’s more real.

MC: Have you had any contact with the kids in your film since the end of shooting?

NB: Yes. They all came out to Sundance; they’ve seen the film a few times now.

MC: Are they happy with the finished project?

NB: They’re happy with it, there are certainly some cringe moments in the film for them but they are really happy that people like them. Even Megan who some people have mixed feelings about, I think she sees that people can understand where her rage is coming from. People get really teary eyed when she gets that acceptance letter (into college).

MC: Two years have passed since you finished the film, that’s a good chunk of time.

NB: Yes it is. I think that makes it easier for them, they can see how much they’ve changed.

MC: Does it take a while for the people you follow to get used to the camera and just act normal?

NB: It does, it takes a couple of months. It takes some longer than others, the kids who aren’t so popular don’t care as much about the way they look or come across on camera. We had a year to get to know these kids and that was a real gift unlike some reality shows where they have such a short period of time.

MC: Do you think you had an effect on these kids?

NB: Possibly in my friendships with them, maybe I’ve kind of changed their destiny in a way. Take Hannah, who wants to be a filmmaker, maybe I helped her find the courage to take off and head to San Francisco. Would she have done it anyway had she not seen what I was able to accomplish? Maybe I helped changed her trajectory in life.

MC: Is there one kid that represents the heart of the film to you?

NB: Yes, I’d say Hannah, because I can relate most to her story on a personal level. I had some similar issues in my life growing up.

MC: As a documentary filmmaker is there a fine line to be drawn between needing to get close to your characters while at the same time not getting too close?

NB: Yes there is but in order for people to get comfortable with you and to be honest you need to get close. It naturally just happens and it’s also essential.

MC: Any interest in doing fiction films at all?

NB: I am. I’m thinking that I’ve done all of these films where I take real life and put it into a narrative and now I feel like I want to take a narrative and make it feel like real life, it’ll be a new challenge.