Digital Prospector: Kids@Risk edition

Critic Rustin Thompson shares the best - and most heartbreaking - video by and about vulnerable youth.
 
This Seattle organization has put cameras in the hands of at-risk youth for more than 19 years. Its mission is to help kids build confidence in their own identity by challenging them to find their voice through the camera lens. They target kids before they exit 9th grade, a critical time when 90 percent of kids who think about dropping out actually do. This short video produced by local filmmakers Birdhouse Creative provides spirited testimony to the organization’s success. Candid images of students capture moments of fleeting joy and quiet contemplation, expressed through a visual vocabulary of off-kilter framing, revealing close-ups and the ambient grays of Northwest light. “Every time I would enter the darkroom it felt like all my worries had disappeared,” says Alicia L., as a flurry of photographs, by turns buoyant, solemn and personal, reveal something so achingly vital that you can’t help but pray that Alicia and her classmates can hold onto that inner peace until their troubles subside.
 
 
“In the richest country on earth, millions of families have been left out in the cold.” That's the tagline for an online preview of American Winter, a new documentary that tackles what is becoming a common subject for non-fiction films: the growing inequality between rich and poor in America (Inequality For All, A Place At The Table). American Winter focuses on formerly middle class Oregon families suddenly staring into the abyss of poverty. According to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report, 16.1 million American kids live in poverty. Their anxious, uncomprehending innocence make for some very affecting interviews. Unfortunately, American Winter's schlocky, fast-cutting TV-news visual style forces you to endure a virtual torrent of tears with every change of scenery. The doc airs on HBO and will screen in Kirkland on January 17. But you could easily skip the screening and simply watch this online trailer, which distills the tenuous existence of these families down to a handful of heartbreaking soundbites from the kids.
 
 
In this documentary, Seattle filmmaker Heather Dew Oaksen tracks the long-term effects of juvenile delinquency — from early incarceration in a maximum security facility to the fragile freedoms of adulthood 18 years later. Oaksen profiles five juveniles in linear episodes that are surprisingly fraught with tension, as you wait after each fade-to-black to see if the kid — now a 30-something young adult — will tumble back into jail, drugs or homelessness. She met these teens at the start of their journey, and the doc is a declaration of her tenacity. Her decision to craft these stories with a quasi-experimental technique is at times distracting, but the film’s message is inescapable: Hard-core lockup at such a tender age sets up a lifetime of obstacles for kids as they search for a sense of belonging.
 

This locally-produced documentary on homeless teens is beautifully photographed and compassionately directed by Bainbridge Island director-cameraman Steven Keller. Be advised that two of the four kids in the film are played by actors whose lines were adapted from off-camera interviews with real kids. Fair enough, I suppose. But Keller barely acknowledges this important detail in the film’s credits and it is nowhere to be found on his website. The two fictional interviews, which are really the two most dramatic stories in the film, are staged in over art directed settings and you feel cheated to learn later that other scenes were re-enactments.  Keller no doubt cares about these kids and their stories of sexual abuse, foster care, drug addiction and teen pregnancy. But his the choice to play-act casts a disingenuous pall over the movie.  Watch the online trailer and see if you can spot the pretenders.
 


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