Friday, 14 May 2010


Opening to the soulful voice of Otis Redding, documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s High School studies the lives of students at Northeast High School in Philadelphia. A typical day in the students’ life is shown through short vignettes of lessons and break times, the camera occasionally catching their faces in naked close-up. Wiseman frequently makes connections by juxtaposing similar clips. A Spanish teacher coaxing her pupils’ enunciation is compared to a music teacher mouthing the beat of a timpani. A gymnastics lesson, voyeuristically shot, rhymes with a later shot of girls preparing for a fashion show. The school day neither begins nor ends clearly, the activities within it in a haphazard order.

Wiseman is known for his unflinching cinema vérité manner, and High School is a brilliant example of why this works so well. The editing could almost have been pre-determined, short snippets of drama only staying moments on the screen. Occasionally, the subjects appear conscious of the camera and change their behaviour accordingly (the teachers in particular), but whether this impedes or ameliorates the role of the film is up to the viewer. What is most significant about the film is that the students are almost entirely unheard beyond chatter and laughter. It is not entirely clear as to whether or not this was deliberate, but needless to say the effect is a little sinister at times. Interestingly, the film was banned in Philadelphia for this reason, although its subjects later claimed it was an accurate depiction. An unusually gripping watch.

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