American history, revisited

By Fiona Ralph

In 1984 Keva Rosenfeld filmed a year at a Californian high school - 30 years on, he revisits the documentary and the students who helped make it happen. He talks to Fiona Ralph.

All American High directed by Keva Rosenfeld. Photo / Supplied.
All American High directed by Keva Rosenfeld. Photo / Supplied.

In this self-published, self-styled era, a film following high school students would hardly be remarkable. The fact that Keva Rosenfeld's 1984 documentary All American High is realising success and gaining an international audience now, 30 years after its initial release, as the re-mastered and updated All American High: Revisited, shows where the value lies.

A time capsule of pre-YouTube teenage life, it shows the parties and perms, the proms and personal cassette players, the education (or lack thereof), the hopes and dreams, and the spookily current issues - gun control, consumerism, divorce, the American Dream.

"It's the real thing, nothing is fabricated," Rosenfeld says on the phone from a scorching Santa Monica.

"I didn't ask anyone to walk through a door, I'd never ask anyone to repeat anything. I just pointed a camera. It was pre-reality TV, it was pre-any awareness of focusing your subject on anything."

The film sees Torrance High School (which has since been filmed for many movies and television shows such as Beverly Hills, 90210, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Bring It On) through the eyes of Finnish exchange student Rikki Rauhala. The same things New Zealanders struggle to understand - cheerleaders, homecoming queens, school spirit - stump Rauhala, who also finds the relaxed attitude to education surprising, noting after the class graduates: "I think high school here prepares more for a social life than a work life."

Keva Rosenfeld's finnish "guide" Rikki Rauhala in a pink dress. Photo / Supplied
Keva Rosenfeld's finnish "guide" Rikki Rauhala in a pink dress. Photo / Supplied

Following Rauhala was not in Rosenfeld's initial plan. He set out to make a fly-on the-wall documentary in the vein of Frederick Wiseman's 1968 verite film, High School.

"At the beginning I wanted to just do a chronicle of the values of that class, their dreams and their hopes and the aspirations and the values," he says. "It wasn't really about Rikki so much as an overview of what those attitudes were. That was always in the back of my mind, it's just that when I found Rikki, she was my way into doing that.

She became the guide and that was when I realised I had a film. Because basically she could say everything that I was thinking. I was an outsider, she was an outsider, there were a lot of similarities between how we saw that experience."

Rosenfeld filmed the school over a year in his 20s, while working as a documentary editor, with a team of four including girlfriend at the time, producer Linda Maron. He afforded the project by using free "short ends" from his work, the scraps of film no one wanted. One of the first films he directed, the film holds a special meaning for him.

Screened a few times when originally released, it was then largely forgotten, until a year and a half ago, when he found the tapes in a storage unit and realised he might have something valuable. He tracked down as many of the original participants as possible (over half of the original speakers) and filmed reunions with them, largely on his own.

Keva Rosenfeld has revisited his 1980s documentary about a year in the life of a high school. Photo / Supplied.
Keva Rosenfeld has revisited his 1980s documentary about a year in the life of a high school. Photo / Supplied.

These create one of the most memorable aspects of the film: returning to Finland, he sees Rauhala, and meets her own teenage kids. He meets the 17-year old metalhead-turned-cop ("You couldn't write that stuff," he jokes), the republican-turned-democrat preschool co-ordinator and the cheat-turned-teacher who married her marriage class "husband".

"It was one of the highlights of the process, connecting on a personal level with those people," he says. "Life is very full, it's very rich. It's unexpected and you really don't know where things will end up."

The film was well received at Austin's SXSW Festival in March, and will make its international premiere this weekend at the Documentary Edge Festival, where Rosenfeld will be in attendance.


All American High: Revisited screens this Friday 9.15pm and Sunday 12pm at Q Theatre. Tickets at qtheatre.co.nz or ph (09) 309 9771.


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