Intended as an uncontaminated snapshot of an institution, Frederick Wiseman’s High School wisely acts as a non-participant, using no narrative, focal point or linear plot line. What it manages to capture is an authentic look at education in America, made all the more powerful because of a lack of specifics, allowing the viewer to relate based on their own experiences.
Wiseman’s films are documentaries in the purest sense; works that catalog moments and occurrences without reaction, maintaining a stoic distance from the people and objects on the screen. The town, school, students and administrators don’t necessarily matter to the intention of the work, instead acting as a reflection of the banal, collective consciousness.
Moments are seemingly edited together at random. Scenes of a hallway between classes will segue into lunchroom discussion, band practice or a parent-teacher conference. The impermanence never feels haphazard, gradually building a theme from seemingly disconnected elements, exhibiting the roles of the student and teacher and how they act as a microcosm for society on a grander scale.
Taking on the role of authority figure, teachers and administrators pass down judgment and punishment under the guise of education. On the receiving end of discipline is the student, who plays the role of subordinate. More like helpless captor than willing participant, students are incapable of expressing themselves as individuals, often lashing out in frustration. While individualism is promoted by authority figures in theory, its practice is rarely rewarded, often resulting in charges of insubordination or further punishment.
Resigned to being sheep, most of the teens spied by Wiseman’s camera seem bored and distant during lectures, blankly staring off into space or slumped over the hard surface of their desks. The only moments of engagement come through a poetry lesson on Simon & Garfunkel and a flight simulation, both of which require active participation, not quiet reverence. Sadly, lessons of this type are fleeting and most of the day is spent reinforcing conformist ideals about the benefits of being part of the “majority.”
Wiseman seems to think this oppressive experience won’t end the moment these kids grab a diploma and bolt for the exit. They’ll probably have someone telling them to “get on the ball” every day for the rest of their lives, whether that be a college professor, employer or police officer. It’s this helplessness that makes High School such an infuriating and confrontational documentary. Teen angst may be temporary, but subservience and complacency are eternal.
High School (Zipporah Films, 1968)
Directed by Frederick Wiseman
Photographed by Richard Leiterman