For Hanoy Urtarte and Marianna Sann, the second semester of their senior year turned into a type of free therapy. It was a chance to better understand who they truly were and where they would go.
All they needed was a camera.
Al Jazeera America gave them that camera when the news channel partnered with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney on a documentary television series Edge of Eighteen, which focused on 15 high school seniors throughout the United States in their last semester of K-12 education.
Urtarte, a gay teen in New Jersey growing up in a religious Dominican household, and Sann, an education activist in Philadelphia living with her conservative Cambodian parents, are two of the teens featured on the show.
“The original concept of the series was to do a portrait of a generation of students that were on the edge of adulthood,” said producer Amy Kohn, adding they sought to highlight a “diverse cross section of American children” while covering education in America today.
Education is a major part of the series because so much of the teens’ time is spent in school, but the documentary naturally centers itself on their lives outside the classroom, displaying a wide array of struggles such as identity, poverty, violence, teen pregnancy, college and religion.
“You can’t cover education and what’s going on in school without looking at family, socioeconomic, personal issues,” Kohn said.
“I did not think I was going to share so much,” Sann said. “But this is my story, and I want it to be as real as possible.”
Sann and the other teens had never done video, documentary or journalistic work before.
“We didn’t really set any limits,” Kohn said. “We didn’t say, ‘We don’t want you to film this; we do want you to film this.’”
After a four-day conference in New York that brought the 15 teens together for a crash course on documentary filmmaking, the students went back home with a camera in their hand as well as the support from a field producer with the challenge to completely capture their lives—which wasn’t always easy.
With a family that likes to keep things very personal, Sann said it was a process to get them to open up in front of the camera and answer her questions. Many times her dad even ran away from her.
“She was relentless, not in a negative way,” Kohn said. “She kept trying to get the story like a good journalist, and she did get it but she worked really, really hard. It’s hard enough when someone you don’t know says no to you, when your own family is saying no, it’s really challenging.”
Urtarte also struggled getting his family to share and communicate with him on camera.
“My family doesn’t like to keep it out there, especially when it’s going to be shown all over America,” Urtarte said. “I did this documentary to bring [my dad and I] closer, so he can understand where I’m coming from, why I’m so frustrated,” Urtarte said. “And I want to understand him as well. … I wanted my family to know who Hanoy is.”
Kohn and her team really pushed the students to document their everyday lives, the good and the bad.
“We talked to them a lot about story and what stories they want to tell,” Kohn said.
Sann and Urtarte said they took their cameras everywhere they went and would send in weekly hours of footage. If something happened when they cameras weren’t rolling, they would talk about it in a one-on-one chat with the camera, which they called video diaries. They also used the video diaries to express themselves and reflect.
“I actually cried a lot during the video diaries and even some of the scenes with my family because a lot of the things I shared were things that had been going on for a while and that stuff I had kept it to myself,” Sann said. “It helped me a lot emotionally, it allowed me to know who I am…I know what I want in life because of the video diaries.”
Urtarte even named his camera during the semester, because he felt like they were spending so much time together.
“She was my best friend, I can vent to her and I’m not going to be judged,” he said. “It’s easier to share.”
For the series to be as powerful as the producers hoped, tremendous time and energy and thought went into its creation — especially given the ratio of footage shot to footage used is “usually like 100:1,” Kohn said.
The teens learned about the right way to tell a story, how to present footage and capture a certain image, Sann said, and now both Urtarte and Sann hope to continue working in media. Urtarte is at a community college studying psychology with hopes to break into the entertainment business and Sann is a freshman at Temple University studying journalism.
“I think what’s really cool about this documentary is we were sort of the selfie generation,” Sann said. “So a lot of the stuff was filmed as a selfie. … It was personal as you watched it, and you feel like you’re in our shoes going through the same thing.”
She said she hopes that other young people can relate to their stories, and realize no one is alone in their problems or struggles.
“This was 100 percent real,” Urtarte said. “It was all about my life, it was all about us. It was very scary, but basically I loved the experience.”