Chain Camera

For his extraordinary documentary Chain Camera, director Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life & Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) took a calculated risk by going beyond mere fly-on-the-wall intimacy, essentially removing himself from the shooting process altogether. With the willful participation of John Marshall High School, an ethnically diverse institution just outside Hollywood, Dick handed out 10 palm-sized digital video cameras to students, who were free to film whatever they wanted about their lives. After one week, the cameras were passed along to another 10 students, and so on; a year later, Dick was left with more than 700 hours of footage from about 500 students, which he then whittled down to 16 mini-diaries with a startling range of backgrounds and personalities. By turns playful, harrowing, intensely moving, and uproariously funny, Chain Camera cuts away all documentary artifice and goes straight to the source, allowing these kids to reveal themselves with the utmost directness and candor. Granted, it doesn't take much to get teenagers in confessional mode, but Dick's subjects are not the sort of pretty, insufferable narcissists found on MTV and reality television shows. Showing remarkable facility with the camera, they shoot their lives like an open book, intrepidly (and perhaps foolishly) inviting an audience of strangers into their world. By design, Chain Camera presents a broad cross-section of students with varying ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation, which makes it tempting to attach sweeping statements about today's youth. But the individuals involved aren't from a cookie-cutter mold. Many come from broken homes, where they're asked to take care of not only themselves, but often their single parents. One girl worries that her morbidly obese father, after recently suffering a massive heart attack, will leave her without her only parent and confidante; another boy, living in an apartment with bullet-holes in the drywall, praises his mother for holding down two jobs while working on a college degree. Other portraits are more frivolous, with sex the common denominator, from virgins to nymphomaniacs to every proclivity in between. Some have bold dreams for life after high school—85 percent of Marshall graduates pursue higher education—and a few are uncertain or worse, such as a former bulimic who wants to become a stripper the moment she turns 18. Chain Camera paints Marshall as a great melting pot, with students from 41 different ethnic groups, yet the 16 subjects don't seem culled from some rainbow checklist (if they were, please bring on Chain Camera II and III). By sampling even the thinnest slice of Generation Y, he finds young people whose humanity calls any simple assumptions or stereotypes into question.

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