Celluloid Zeroes

Whatever happened to the social-guidance film?

"The pendulum is swinging back," says Smith, now in the planning stages of a documentary about mental-hygiene filmmakers. "You've got sex, you've got AIDS, you've got drugs. We're entering the second golden age of guidance films, and 50 years from now we're going to be laughing again." Open up the current At Risk Resources catalog of educational films (1-800-99-YOUTH) and you might mistake it for an index to Mental Hygiene: available videos include Managing Your Anger, Bobby (about a champion athlete who tries cocaine and ends up in a coma), and—a title worthy of Dick Wayman—So You Think You're Going to Live Forever: "For every teenage driver who wants to LIVE!"

"There are some wonderful films out there, but I prefer to do more discussion," says Dr. Linda Trabman. A teacher at the High School of Telecommunications, Arts and Technology in Brooklyn since 1988, Trabman has taught health education for 29 years. "The health-ed requirement for graduation is only six months long. So even if a film is excellent, I have to think twice before I take away a period to show it. Usually I just show a clip." Most of these clips, moreover, aren't even from educational films, because "the kids like to see real-people stuff," Trabman adds. "I'll show them something from 20/20. If we're doing a unit on Tourette's syndrome, they'll see Chris Jackson, the basketball player, and say, Yeah, I know someone like that. For the issue of multiple personalities, I'll show them a scene from Primal Fear or Sybil. That's the stuff that interests them, and I think it's a better discussion generator." Other health-ed teachers in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island City say that they use snippets from commercial films ranging from And the Band Played On (AIDS), to Rush (drug addiction), The Accused (rape), and This Boy's Life (alcoholism and domestic abuse).

Kids in the hall: The Outsider (1951)
photo: from Mental Hygiene, Blast Books
Kids in the hall: The Outsider (1951)

In short, teachers seem to be deciding what constitutes a "classroom film," since the movies designated as such aren't up to the task. As Ken Smith explains, "My point has always been that nothing can be resolved by a 10-minute video. In the years following World War II, people were terrified of the world, and of how to teach their kids to fit into this alien, strange place. So they said, We can't handle this—let this movie take care of it. And the adults of today are just as scared. But it's always been a very American thing to solve complex problems through technology."

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