The best teenage docs

Alongside a teaser from Matt Wolf's new film Teenage, we chart the youth docs that ripped up the rulebooks

Arts+Culture Top Ten

Before the war, the concept “teenager” didn’t even exist. You were a girl, then a woman (sorry, Britney) – until leisure time spawned youth cultures and adolescents rebelled for their own sense of freedom. Adapting punk historian Jon Savage’s book, New York director Matt Wolf has interwoven archival footage with retro-styled, acted scenes for his new documentary Teenage - and given us this sneak-peek exclusive clip.

In Wolf's own words:

"I’m obsessed with uncovering hidden histories, and in my film Teenage I got inspired by some obscure teenage rebels. One of them was the German Swing Kid Tommie Scheel. During World War II, Tommie and his Swingjugend friends smuggled American jazz records and British fashion into Nazi Germany for underground dance parties. They were having fun, but they were also ingeniously protesting the fascist regime. It’s a moment in the story of youth where radical politics and vanguard pop culture collide. When the Gestapo busted Tommie and his friends, many were sent to political prisons, or the front lines of war, where they surely died. Tommie survived, eventually finding his way to Toronto, Canada. I learned about Tommie in Michael H. Kater’s book Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany. There are almost no photos of teenage Tommie and his friends to speak of. I had to use my imagination, and to bring their incredible story to life in these recreated home movies." 

Wolf's 2008 debut feature, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, told the story of a much-loved experimental composer and underground disco legend, and music also figures big in his latest. An electronic score from Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox adds to its mesmerising look at various tribes of the early 20th century, from London’s bohemian bright young things (like tabloid mess Brenda Deen Paul, the LiLo of the 20s) to Germany’s anti-Nazi swing kids, whose love of American culture put them at political risk. To mark the film’s release this week, here are our picks of the hottest docs on teen life.

PARIS IS BURNING (1990)

Jennie Livingston’s landmark indie doc captures the vibrant New York drag ball culture of the 80s, from which voguing originated.  Competing “houses” patterned on fashion houses such as Chanel formed surrogate families for participants shut out from mainstream society. Many were still teens.

THIS AIN’T CALIFORNIA (2012)

This engrossing and haunting German doc-style film from director Martin Persiel is a portrait of an ill-fated teen rebel – a leading light of east Berlin’s burgeoning skater scene in the 80s who came under the disapproving eye of the Stasi secret police.

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE (2002)

Michael Moore’s provocative Oscar-winner looks into America’s obsession with gun ownership and high rate of violent crime through the lens of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, and suggests that a culture of fear is conditioning US youth.

PUTIN’S KISS (2012)

This alarming documentary from director Lise Birk Pedersen follows the experience of Masha Drokova – a teen activist who idolises Putin – in Russian youth organisation Nashi.  When her journalist friends are violently targeted, she’s forced to re-evaluate her beliefs.

 

STREETWISE (1984)

Martin Bell's gritty doc, which grew out of a photo assignment on a Seattle underbelly of hustlers, dumpster divers and teen prostitutes, revealed that even in "America's most liveable city" youth desperation was rampant. The soundtrack was provided by Tom Waits.

HOOP DREAMS (1994)

The aspirations of two high-school basketballers from difficult backgrounds in inner-city Chicago are the focus of this highly acclaimed Sundance favourite from Steve James (who also directed hard-hitting The Interrupters) about the fringes of the American sports dream.

 

THE ALCOHOL YEARS (2000)

Brit filmmaker Carol Morley placed an ad in a local paper asking anyone who remembered what she'd got up to during her booze-soaked teenage years in 80s Manchester to come forward. The riveting, and often cringe-making interviews that resulted form a hugely insightful portrait of youthful insecurity.

 

AMERICAN TEEN (2008)

Matt Wolf’s film says that the concept “teenage” was an American invention – and here director Nanette Burstein takes an engrossing look at what life is like for five small-town high school seniors who fit stock stereotypes – from the princess to the rebel and the nerd – in a sort of real-life The Breakfast Club. 

VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)

In the tiny community of Niaqornat in Greenland, which is under environmental threat, the only teenager in a population of 59 connects to others through the net. He makes the tough decision to relocate to city life in this fascinating and beautifully shot documentary from directors Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson.

 

WHATEVEREST (2013)

What do you do when you’re young, creative, and live miles away from anyone like-minded? For his hilarious, endearing short Kristoffer Borgli tracked down the inspiration behind Todd Terje's disco-jam track "Inspector Norse" – a failed electronic musician and eccentric in a dead-end Norwegian town who brews his own legal highs and posts videos of himself dancing on the net. Hilarious and endearing, the mockumentary – presented as fact – had us fooled.

 

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