As part of our ongoing coming-of-age series, we’re traveling back to the ‘80s with a film of extraordinary intimacy and honesty: Joel DeMott and Jeff Kreines’ Seventeen.
The filmmakers shared this statement:
A film about coming of age in the working class. We decided to follow a group of teenagers — girls and boys, white and black — whose lives intertwine during their last year in high school. By filming for more than a year, and by living where we were filming, we encountered a range of experience. A white girl has a cross burned in her yard because she has a black boyfriend. A pal of hers from the neighborhood loses his best friend, who is killed in a car accident. Another classmate fathers an illegitimate baby.
From the beginning we mixed easily with the kids. We each use only a one-person rig we designed — a camera/tape recorder combination that allows the filmmaker to act intuitively and feel untied — no sound person, lights, crew, or crates of paraphernalia. It matters, too, that one of us is male, the other female: we could film those moments of high girlishness and boyishness that occur only out of earshot of the opposite sex. The result is a free-flowing intimacy with the teenagers’ world. Kids smoke dope, get drunk, sass their teachers, disobey the taboo against race-mixing, try to break away from their mothers and fathers. It’s clear that they, on occasion, fuck and fight.
But the film is not scandalous. It got that reputation, sight-unseen by most citizens, when the authorities tried to ban it, and boughten mouths told lies about it, over and over, till their inventions became objective record — elevated to that pinnacle, and secured, by the typing sheep. Nothing new there — that the powerful have power. We refused to change our film.
We respected the kids’ complexity, celebrated their liveliness, despaired of their future. And we loved them dearly. But it was impossible to oblige America’s notion that to be worthy film subjects, the working class must be saintlike, and to be embraceable, cinema-verité (or any art) must become a broken version of what the makers made.
—Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines