May 4, 2012


Here's a YouTube link to a pretty cool "documentary," Streetwise, about teenage runaways living on the streets of Seattle around 1984. I put documentary in quotes because this was back when movies with that label were still historical or ethnographic, and not naked propaganda -- 80 minutes of cheerleading, peppered with 10 minutes of glib dismissal of The Other Side.

(There could be some rising vs. falling-crime era link here, as Triumph of the Will kicked off the propagandistic documentary trend of the falling-crime mid-century, followed by American documentary propaganda for the New Deal. Perhaps in more socially avoidant times, documentarians cannot get too close to reality, lest they find themselves attached to the individuals and groups being documented. Better then to intellectualize it and turn it into some abstract debate between imaginary factions.)

At any rate, the stories of the kids in Streetwise resonated with what I'd read from written ethnographies of teenage runaways during those times, such as this one. Unlike a Donahue or Geraldo show focused on the topic, or a very special episode of a sit-com devoted to it, longer-form documentaries are a lot more entertaining and real easy to learn from. You get to see an entire cast of characters, each with their own personalities, goals, strategies, and so on, instead of the creators trying to sum all of that up into the one guest star on the sit-com or the handful of guests on a talk show. And you also get to see several narratives unfold, rather than brief encounters in the sit-com or the directed interviews of the talk show.

All of this tends to check any urges that the makers might have toward melodrama, which belongs to fiction. It also broadens the appeal -- even if you aren't very interested in the culture of runaways, you'll still find the movie watchable, unlike propaganda that only the target micro-niche will get off on.

Less structured ethnographies also wind up capturing a lot of other interesting features of the world the action is set in. Although not central to the movie, you get a hint of how much more religious the country was back then by running into a Pentacostal street preacher. And you can't help but notice how out-and-about everyone was -- old and young, black and white, male and female, well-dressed and scraggly-lookin'. Young people still had their own public spaces like the always full video game arcades. Whenever a radio is on in the background, it's playing songs from the New Wave era. Somehow all of those things go together, but you wouldn't notice that if you'd only watched a bunch of highly focused interviews.

The world of Streetwise is particularly fascinating since it wouldn't even be 10 years later that Seattle would become the poster city for mopey and withdrawn youngsters, whereas the teenagers here couldn't be more strong-willed and resilient. Then 5 to 10 years after the heyday of grunge, Seattle became known as a yuppie capital due to Microsoft and Starbucks. By that time, 1984 was hardly ancient history, but it might as well have been, lying on the other side of the early '90s chasm.

That's not to say that the movie-makers romanticize the street kids. We see how malnourished many are, such as the 16 year-old boy who's told that aside from height, his body is like that of a 12 year-old. While seeing a doctor at a clinic, a teenage prostitute lists the various encounters with VD she's had. And by the end, one of them has killed himself. Within 5 years of the movie's release, another had been stabbed to death while sticking up for a friend, and a third was murdered by the notorious Green River Killer. I'm not sure when, but another died of AIDS. Not to mention all the lesser ways that the kids sabotage themselves and betray each other.

All in all it's just a refreshingly humanistic portrayal of a group we'd probably never get to know much about first-hand, showing their joys and their even greater fuck-ups. If you thought you'd never find a documentary that could hold your attention all the way through, give Streetwise a look.


  1. Could not watch. Incredibly depressing.

  2. Just watched for the first time, thanks for the recommendation. Main impressions: the "naturalistic" documentary style feels foreign, and I had forgotten how outside of NY/SF the rest of the country until well into Reagan's second term still felt like the late 70s (aesthetic, clothes, everyone in dinosoaur Detroitmobiles).

  3. Yep, no mullets in '84, and the Farrah Fawcett style was still in for girls. Big, but not BIG hair just yet.

    I didn't get a good look at the furniture in Tiny's home, but I remember our upholstery of the time having that later '70s plaid -- cream background, brown or black stripes, and some olive green too, if I remember right. And furry-looking -- but then everything was hairier back then.

  4. MTV True Life has sometimes been surprisingly good in this vein. In particular, they did an episode on teens who support their families. One girl supports her orphaned siblings and own son and another supports her out of work parents and younger brother.

    16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom have been good at times too.


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