Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has made a name creating films that expose institutions in their wrongdoing, challenge power structures and bring audiences up close and personal with some of society’s most villainous bad guys.
He’s called out corporations, as in the case of “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” in which he broke down the firm's notorious accounting scandal. He went after U.S. military tactics and the CIA with “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about an Afghan taxi driver never charged with any crime but who was tortured and died in captivity at Bagram prison.
He took a deep dive into the Catholic Church's cover-up of the decades-long abuse scandal with “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God.” And, he documented the final days of denial by international cycling superstar Lance Armstrong, in his film “The Armstrong Lie.”
Gibney says what drives him is simple: The desire to hold the powerful to account. “With power comes responsibility. When people abuse that power, it turns a crank in me,” Gibney told Al Jazeera.
But Gibney’s newest project “Edge of Eighteen,” produced with Al Jazeera, takes a very different tack and promises to cover more innocent, albeit still issue-laden territory – that of the American high school senior. "In a way, it goes back to one of my first films “The Ruling Classroom,” about middle school kids," Gibney explains. "I wanted to do something about this critical period in kids' lives … But it's not a report — it's shown through the lenses of the kids, who wholeheartedly made it happen."
He also has taken a novel approach in how the documentary was made. For the project, Gibney and his team selected 15 seniors to come to New York City for documentary film training, with the guidance of producer Amy Kohn. Gibney says they looked at hundreds of kids before choosing "15 that we found particularly compelling … and also represented the diversity that is the country.”
The kids themselves were then tasked with making a film about their lives during the last six months of high school. "We emphasized the idea the cameras were not just recorders, they are storytelling machines."
Once they got going, Gibney says the stories they chose were all their own: “Very powerful and important stories about immigration, about gay and lesbian rights, about education, about ambition and about religion and the separation of church and state. They sound so big and grand when we talk about them in these abstract phrases. But to see these kids go through them – that was so poignant and emotional. And it came from them.”
Going off to college continues to represent many Americans' first opportunity for complete freedom. Along those lines, each story circles around the moment of truth: receiving the college acceptance, or rejection, letter. But en route to this instant, the viewer gets access to each personal narrative. While the teenagers did much of the shooting, roving camera teams offered support in shooting key scenes.
"Even though I don't do films in the cinema verité mode," Gibney says, "the idea of having kids go out with cameras and document their lives … was truly exciting.”
Stories featured in Edge include that of Maurice, a Chicago native who has seen disturbing violence, including the death by gunshot of his best friend. There’s also the story of Angela, an ambitious dancer facing intense pressure also to hone her academic credentials. Hanoy is a Dominican-American teen battling for his dad’s acceptance after coming out. Vasthy is an undocumented immigrant raised in the U.S. since the age of 7.
"I was impressed with the courage and determination of some of these kids. They confront a lot of issues with dignity,” Gibney says.
The series offers many candid scenes, including a teen mom’s sleepless night and another teen who's been bullied. One participant reveals extreme attempts to keep her weight down, while another young man divulges in his video journal how much he isn’t like his family, and how much college will give him more space. Another, a devout young evangelist, offers the story of his strong faith. It’s his fascinating story that opens and closes the series.
But in an era when kids are facing college costs that have risen 130 percent over the past two decades, as wages have risen just 13 percent in the same period, it’s not easy. Gibney says more than any other theme, "the economics of education came up over and over." He ties that into what he calls "the peril of diminished expectations."
In fact, the film shows how many students are admitted to the university of their dreams but then can’t afford to go. "Some of the guidance counselors, with the best intentions, instead of reaching higher and higher, they lower expectations — either for grades or economic circumstances. I found that chilling," Gibney says.
"The guidance counselors are overburdened," he concludes. "Educators, schools can’t solve all problems.”