The Maidstone. East Hampton, NY
Interview: Rob DeStefano
In between jogging from screening to screening, I sat down with director Keva Rosenfeld to discuss his fresh and thoroughly enjoyable documentary All American High Revisited. Aptly compared to a non-fictional John Hughes trip, Keva’s camera follows exchange student Rikki Rauhala through her senior year at a California high school. He returned to his work, now nearly thirty years since its creation, to check in on these “characters.”
Inflatable Ferret: Your film has a clear cinema verite style. Any specific filmmakers of this nature who inspired you?
Keva Rosenfeld: I was partially inspired by Frederick Wiseman, who made the classic film High School (1968). He has a very distinct style and has worked that way for years. He goes in and imbeds himself into a social institution – mental hospital, airport, public housing – and he just parks himself there with a small crew, and he films everything. There were a handful of pioneers who did this, the Maysles brothers for example.
IF: Grey Gardens is truly incredible.
KR: Yes! It’s a fly-on the-wall approach. A kind of stylistic, observational-looking film with no titles, no narration, no music, which seemed to me simple and honest. Of course, it’s always subjective where you point a camera or what you decide to edit. And these kinds of films have their own stylistic set of “rules.” Kind of like The Celebration –
IF: – a Dogme 95 set of limitations?
KR: Exactly. And I admired a lot of what verite did. In addition to the Wiseman movie, I also liked the humor and humanity of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and I liked those John Hughes’ narratives. I didn’t want to redo that movie [High School], but I wanted to emulate the style, the authenticity of it. I didn’t want to make a film about the education system. I was more interested in the socialization of students. America is such a diverse culture. We don’t really have a lot of things that we all share, that we all participate in, but getting through high school is one of those common unifiers. My motive was to highlight that teenage rite of passage. What did you take from seeing the film?
IF: I think we’re definitely on the same page.
KR: It seemed to me that teenage rites of passage are a timeless thing. When I screened the film again, of course everyone noticed the funny hairstyles, but it was also very current. That’s when I realized it would be great to find out what happened to these people.
Now is a good time to pause and explain the screening Keva mentions. In 2013, the Aero Theater in Santa Monica played a double feature consisting of ‘All American High’ and ‘Fast Times,’ with a post-screening Q&A session after. To his surprise, several audience members, now about thirty years older, were students from his film.
IF: And that’s when you decided to track your subjects down and shoot the “revisited” portion of All American High Revisited?
KR: Yes. I had reconnected with Rikki and been to Finland to film her, but I hadn’t thought about finding and filming the other people until that screening, where people stood up and identified themselves as students from the 1984 class I filmed.
IF: What next?
KR: I hired two or three researchers and we began to track them down. I put a photo of every person who spoke to me on an index card on a board in my office. There were fifty people and I tried to track down all fifty of them.
IF: You seem to have been pretty successful.
KR: Yeah! I got to thirty of them.
IF: Do you find a lot of viewers probing your film for insight into the education system?
KR: It always comes up, this issue of the quality of their education. But I think if I’d made the film just about education, I wouldn’t be here thirty years later revisiting it. I think my film is about youth, or more precisely about the exuberance of youth. It’s sort of a case study, and the result seems to be… people can turn out okay, sometimes despite the education. No real disaster stories. No one was in jail. They’re all part of the working, middle-class. They’re all paying taxes. There were no deaths. No overdoses.
IF: These students’ classes consisted of extravagant lessons on wedding planning and divorce mediation. There was a much greater focus on practicality and personal affairs in 1984 than in today’s classes. What do you take away from this?
KR: What I learned from doing this is that people can learn on their own if they’re motivated. The one girl in the film who was very conservative in high school and is now very liberal, said that she changed when she left high school. She was in this protected bubble in high school. When she went to college, she saw other opinions. People learn at different stages.
IF: In what ways do you think high school has changed since you were a student?
KR: I think high school now is really hard. They’re studying all the time, and there’s zero tolerance. While I’d never endorse this, one of the kids in the film would just walk around campus and drink beer out of a Coca Cola container. No one knew he was doing that. I’d imagine today, that same kid would have much more fear of getting caught. Today, there’s enormous pressure on kids to succeed, they seem overscheduled, and many look quite stressed. I feel like it’s almost okay to be a little stupid and experimental when you’re young.
IF: On that note, at one of the school’s dances, there is a kid dancing like a raving lunatic without his shirt on. It was hilarious.
KR: (laughing) They were certainly more physical with each other then. People would pile on top of each other at those pep rallies. There was a lot more touching. There’s that scene where the students are putting their heads in whipped cream pies to get a chocolate kiss, and in all that messy silliness, a teacher grabs and kisses one of the girls.
IF: I don’t think groping female students is too acceptable anymore… On a serious note though, do you look back on these school days of freedom with fondness and nostalgia?
KR: I’m not someone who thinks the old days are better than now. I’m not nostalgic. I don’t believe the past was better, but there are differences that you can see. I think generally we live in a more restrictive time. I think having a cell phone and being able to post something immediately creates a looking-over-your-shoulder, more cautious culture. Teens seemed to be more uninhibited then. The kids in the film were not as guarded as people today.
IF: What kind of kid were you in high school?
KR: I went to both a public school and a private school. I was always social, but I was making films at a young age – shooting 16mm and stop-motion, so I was sort of in the arty crowd. I never went to my prom or homecoming. I didn’t do any of that. I wasn’t like any of these kids.
IF: Did you feel like you were living vicariously through some of these students?
KR: That’s definitely true. I was young and out of film school and producing this project. My partner was my girlfriend at the time. We were a couple and seen as young, so we were no threat. They [the students] gave us access to their lives. Linda and I both felt we had never lived those lives. The popular crowd was not something we knew – not to say we were unpopular when we were younger. I guess I had more judgment when I was in my own high school. But while making the film, I tried not to judge anything.
IF: Anything you learned from this “second” high school experience?
KR: I enjoyed high school much more the “second” time. I liked those students more. When I was in high school, looking at the popular kids, I didn’t connect with them. (laughs) But I realized that who you are at that age is just a stage. You don’t stay that way. It’s like the girl who says in the movie, “High school is part of your formative years. Seventeen year-olds equate to two year-olds, in a sense.” And that’s okay. You can grow out of being superficial. I guess that’s what I learned. I especially learned that from the “revisited” section of the film. Life hits you and you have loss and you have illness and you have death. You’re not the prom queen when you’re forty-seven. You’re just not. You’ve been through other stuff.
IF: You brought up an interesting idea at today’s Q&A about reality television and the use of “conflict producer.” Did you have to coax your subjects at all during filming?
KR: Reality television has changed what documentaries are. We never set up anything in our film. For example, we never told them to have their prom in the local mall. We just pointed the camera in that direction. With reality TV, there’s often a conflict producer, creating the drama. It’s faux reality. You can feel that.
IF: Your subjects, like you said, are so uninhibited. How did you find such charismatic people?
KR: There was a little resistance for the first month. There was a little bit of caution. One of the things I learned about directing is to isolate the important stories, and to gain the trust of your subjects. It was a long 9-month commitment to shoot this film, but soon in the process the students let down their guard, their natural magic surfaced.
IF: Your editing is so precise and often used to comical effect. What was that process like?
KR: I edited on a 16mm flatbed machine, which mechanically threads the perforated film in order to view the image. It’s so industrial. The choices that you make on analog editing are very precise because you can’t simply add one frame – if you do, you have to re-splice and all that. Unlike digital editing, where you can do a hundred versions in an hour, it took me all day to cut one scene. With each edit, I had to be very sure of what I wanted. The first time I saw the film after so long, I also noticed the distinct editorial timing. I don’t know if it’s because it was my first film and I was such a perfectionist, or simply because of my technological limitations.
IF: Did you go back and re-edit any of the original 80s footage?
KR: I didn’t change a frame of that. I let moments play out as I had originally cut it. Now my instinct would be to cut it up. It was surprising to me that it worked. I do take pride in the editing (laughs). I was trained at film school that every shot has a life and you have to find the life of that shot. There’s a precise length for each image. It’s a different type of training than montage editing.
IF: The “revisited” portion has great poignancy. It’s the ending really of Rikki’s story. I loved how we watch Rikki’s family watch Rikki as she watches a younger version of herself.
KR: And me watching her! It’s very meta.
IF: Your film allows us to see characters age. In that respect, it reminded me of Boyhood or Michael Apted’s documentaries.
KR: Yes, I love those films. My friend, Joan Churchill, a great documentary filmmaker once said to me, “The most powerful thing a film can do is capture time.” And she said it to me when I was young. I didn’t really understand what that meant until now.
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