Wednesday, January 20, 2010


The 1984 documentary "Streetwise" followed a group of teen runaways on the streets of Seattle. Nominated for an Oscar and recipient of many other awards, the film, like "An American Family" is nearly forgotten today, and unavailable on DVD.

"Streetwise" made an impression on me for two reason. First, of course, this was a documentary that offered an unusually intimate look into the lives of street kids. Filmmaker Martin Bell and his team had earned the trust of their subjects to an extraordinary degree, and were able to present a unique perspective on a generally mis-represented population.

At the same time, the film disturbed me for purely ethical reasons. I couldn't help but wonder if the teens in this film were amping up their behavior for the camera, motivated to more and more outrageous conduct. I wondered what they were like when the cameras were gone. Some have called this film "staged," but I feel that, perhaps, the subjects of the film picked up on the interests of the filmmaker, and, in effect, gave him what he wanted.

It's a constant concern for documentarians attempting to honestly portray the world around them - to what extent do they impact their surroundings, and how can they minimize their influence?

While "Bollywood Steps" was a different sort of film altogether, these questions did figure into the production. I'll discuss my experiences in my next post.

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