Chain Camera

CHAIN CAMERA – Trailer from Kirby Dick on Vimeo.

No lights, no crew – no rules.

For a groundbreaking experiment in documentary filmmaking, students at Los Angeles’ John Marshall High School (“two miles East of Hollywood”) were given video cameras to record their lives during the 1999-2000 school year. These cameras were passed around from student to student, traversing a range of cliques and eventually reaching representatives of the entire student population.

CHAIN CAMERA’s kids hail from a diverse range of ethnic, social and economic backgrounds and illustrated their environments and innermost thoughts in raw, honest, funny and unpredictable ways. Although Kirby Dick and producers Eddie Schmidt and Dody Dorn kept dialogues with the students, neither they nor any other professional filmmakers were ever present when any of the material was shot. Thus, students speak and act like real kids and not like teenagers on their best behavior for the adult world.

We meet a girl who struggles with bulimia; a virginal couple flirting with the terrifying and hilarious edges of sexuality; a troubled boy with an alcoholic mother who becomes a social activist and volunteer. Some vignettes are hilarious and over-the-top; others are emotional and poignant.

The resulting film, edited into a series of engaging and linked vignettes, blasts through stereotypes to paint a picture of the urban teenage experience that is refreshingly real and thoroughly entertaining. Toward the end of the film, we meet once more with the students as they go through the rituals of prom and graduation – and finally “say goodbye” to their chain cameras.

Often imitated, CHAIN CAMERA, which premiered at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival, stands as the genuine article, foreshadowing YouTube, blogs, and other intimate, DIY media that’s exploded in the last several years. It remains as a potent vision of the American teenage experience.

Reviews: NY Times The Onion AV Club
Entertainment Weekly LA Weekly
The Guardian UK