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Screen Edge 2014: Keva Rosenfeld turns back the clock

Some 30 years in the making, All American High: Revisited reunites filmmaker Keva Rosenfeld with some of the teens featured in his debut film All American High. The intervening decades have been generous, and Rosenfeld retains the enthusiasm one imagines he possessed when, as a twenty-something aspiring filmmaker, he persuaded a bunch of kids, their parents and a school board to let him film their goings-on for a year.

All American High

All American High

So why revisit a film that was made thirty years ago? 

The journey started when Rosenfeld found the original 16mm footage and sound track tapes in a storage unit, with one VHS copy of the final film. He recalled a line from the film “These are the middle class children who will guide us into the 21st Century.”

Rosenfeld began to retrace his steps.

The level of access he was granted was far greater than one would get today, Rosenfeld reckons. Nowadays, parents and educators are too scared to let people film their kids, and the kids are either too savvy or just as likely to be filming themselves. But youth is still a time for making mistakes, and in an age where kids are born almost able to operate sophisticated digital devices including cameras, they’re also dumb enough to post their antics on YouTube.

Another title screening in this year’s Documentary Edge Festival, Robert May’s Kids for Cash, examines what happens when the system decides not to allow kids to be kids. All American High celebrates a time when the system still did allow it.

Like May’s film, Rosenfeld’s film and subjects couldn’t be anything other than American. Torrance High offered the iconic American high school experience, the rites and riots of passage from adolescence to adulthood. As in the USA, there’s been a shift in attitudes here, steps taken that move us further away from allowing kids to be themselves.

Keva Rosenfeld

Director Keva Rosenfeld at Torrance High during the All American High shoot

Rosenfeld was in his early twenties when he made the film – something that helped him gain the trust of his subjects, he believes. He wasn’t of the age of his subjects’ parents, but was old enough for the adults to accept him too.

One suspects Rosenfeld had a lot of fun making the original film.

“It’s an experience which is raw and universal and specific: a rite of passage that cannot be repeated.” Except Rosenfeld did get to repeat it, vicariously at least, through the lens of an Arriflex 16RR shooting on reel ends from jobs that passed through the post house where he was working.

That is a whole other example of a changing world. Today nobody needs reel ends to make a film, or even an actual camera given the speed at which in-phone cameras are developing. Those developments in technology also facilitated the upgrade: Rosenfeld was able to blow up the original 16mm to 2K, or upcycle as he described it, to a high resolution which in turn allowed him to reformat to 16:9.

For audiences of All American High 30 years on, the changes and the benefit of hindsight make the film pure entertainment. The kids might be American, a little older or younger than most of us, but they’re kids. They’re previous incarnations of ourselves, for whom the promise of youth was as bold, naïve and important as it is hilarious in retrospect.

“There’s no way any of us look as good or hold the same values as we did then,” Rosenfeld laughs. The years have been kind to him, seeming to have put a lot fewer miles on his clock than they have for those partaking in a more publicised recent film reunion: the latest Star Wars title.

In the absence of a C-3PO to offer an outsider’s take in All American High, Rosenfeld eventually settled on Rikki Rauhala, a Finnish exchange student, as the lens through which to filter and focus the material.

Early on in All American High one of the teachers recounts the advice that was given to him in his own youth: “You’ve got to get a job where you never need a vacation.”

Consciously or not, Rosenfeld heeded the advice. Since All American High, he’s made a feature: 1993’s Twenty Bucks which, like All American High, premiered at Sundance. He’s spent much of the time since making “hundreds of US and international commercials”.

While Rosenfeld’s career isn’t over, All American High: Revisited brings him full circle back to the place where he started.

Beyond superimposing a small amount of text to introduce All American High, Rosenfeld has left the original film intact. He showed it at an American cinemateque screening. 40 of the students turned up, and seemed to love seeing the film with their kids – everyone wanted to know what happened to the people in the film. Based on audience feedback, Rosenfeld decided that it was more appropriate to retain the integrity of the original film and add new material at the end of the film as a coda.

Like the original material, the coda is built around Rikki. It’s entertaining in its own right, by turns melancholy and laugh out loud funny. With the help of researchers, Rosenfeld was able to track down over half of the 50 people who had speaking parts in the original film.

Revisiting All American High provided him and those he found the chance to reflect on the past, but he was also struck by how, he claimed, you could see the elements of who people actually became in the original footage: “Whoever they became made sense.”

Keva Rosenfeld

Keva Rosenfeld: Revisited

For everyone else, their involvement in the coda satisfied a universal curiosity. What happened to that kid you sat next to in Math all those years ago?

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Ed: an abridged version of this article appeared in Screen Edge Forum’s The Knowledge on 30 May.

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