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Alex Gibney talks to Antonio Mora

Director's latest project, 'Edge of Eighteen,' looks at the lives of high school students in America — as filmed by them

Antonio Mora: Edge of Eighteen was a phenomenal idea, to come up with this incredibly diverse group of students from all over the country to document their last year actually, in fact, their last semester in high school. How did you think about it? 

Alex Gibney: Actually, they documented themselves. Now, I think that's one of the things that makes it so powerful. The idea that we can see it, a moment in time, that critical moment in time when those kids are on the verge of adulthood we take stock not only of them as human beings and young adults, but also a sense of our own country and our own educational system at this key moment in time. But by doing it from the inside out.

It tells a lot of important American stories because you really have this tremendous diversity. You've an Asian-American girl who struggles to figure out whether to put dance in front of academics. A firebrand white evangelical who's struggling with his parents about whether to be a preacher or to go to architecture school. You've got a couple of Latinos, one is undocumented, another is gay, a pregnant girl from the South, an African-American boy who is struggling with the violence of the South Side of Chicago and the presence of drugs. How did you find all these kids?

We sent messages to schools and groups all over the country. We looked at hundreds of kids, and just ultimately, kind of boiled it down to 15 that we found to be particularly compelling. And we sought out characters that would be interesting and celebrate the diversity that we were looking for. But the stories were very much driven by the kids, and that's kind of the way we wanted it because I think you would have expected in a scenario like this is kids with cameras — and they're talking a lot about their relationships. And there's some of that. What was really interesting was the stories they chose to tell were 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 as we talk about them in these abstract phrases. But to see these kids go through them — that was so poignant and so emotional. And it came from them.

How did you train them?

Well, there are 15 kids. We brought them all to New York. This whole process had been guided by a wonderful producer named Amy Kohn. And we put them all into a kind of class for a weekend. We had some of the best documentary filmmakers teaching them about camera, about editing. I think that the big thing that they came away with was that these cameras that we gave them are not recording devices. They're storytelling devices. 

It's interesting that it brings something out in them, but it also brings out something in the viewer because it lets you connect to the character, to the real person who's telling you these stories because they're looking you right in the eye. How do you think the presence of the camera influenced them then? Do you think it shaped their stories in any way, that it changed things?

I think, if we're honest, we have to say that the camera always changes things a little bit. Einstein would have said, "Perspective is vital and important in figuring out what reality is." So yes, sure, the camera changes things. And I think, also, having thought about what the camera means and how it can be a storytelling tool. I think it empowered the kids to think about the stories around them and really engage them in ways that they might not have otherwise done. It was almost like thinking, "Wow, I've got this powerful tool that I'm using. I need to find stories that are worthy of it, not just put the camera on my forehead and walk around."

Did you expect to tell so many different American stories? I've reported from most states in this country. I thought I had a pretty good handle on America. And I'm certainly learning, in just the first hour and a half of what you've put on camera.

To me, that was the invigorating thing. People have asked me, "What is the one thing that this says about this new generation?" I think the exciting thing about this is it doesn't say just one thing. The idea is that there are so many unexpected stories. Brandon, the kid you mentioned, who is the firebrand young preacher. You don't expect to see that — or at least I'm not as familiar with it — there weren't a lot of preachers in my senior class in high school. And then, you see someone like Maurice who's reckoning with his neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, a very tough neighborhood. And you could see the pull of that neighborhood. "Don't go to college, man. We can get a good job as a janitor, you know. Get some cash. Have some fun. Don't go to college." And the anxiety of him wanting to be with that group, and yet, somehow knowing that there's a bigger, better life out there if he is ambitious. So it was stunning to me to see all that.

And Vasthy is another great example, the undocumented girl whose parents actually want to keep her very tight. Not surprising, I mean, she's undocumented. They're in a kind of hostile environment, yet they want to be here to pursue the American dream.

And she's looking at going out of state.

She's looking at going out of state, which they're resisting. And then, ironically, she gets to a point where she can get into Arizona State University, but because she's undocumented, even though she's in Arizona, she's not considered local, so she has to pay full freight. So these kind of odd twists and ironies, all within the context of these kids, very forcefully moving forward, advocating for themselves. It was very inspiring. 

What was really interesting was the stories they chose to tell were 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.

It's been a busy year for you aside from Edge of Eighteen — you also are out with Finding Fela, which is in theaters about an African musician, a child of privilege, also, who ended up becoming quite a revolutionary. And it really brings up a theme that I think recurs in much of your work which is power and challenging that power. Why is that so important to you?

I don't know. It is clearly … something motivates me in that way. I mean, I get angry when I see people abusing power. With power comes responsibility. When people abuse that power, it turns a crank in me. It makes me want to say something. Speak out.

A very important film was Taxi to the Dark Side, which won you an Oscar. The title, of course, comes from Dick Cheney's infamous quote about combating Islamic extremism that would lead us to have to go to the Dark Side. And it focused on an Afghan cab driver, who was captured by American forces, was tortured, ended up dying in captivity even though there was no indication that he had any affiliation to Al-Qaeda. Today, the issues that are brought up by that movie are still being discussed.

I think one of the interesting things that happened is that — particularly in terms of that movie, the issues you can see we're still fighting over. The Senate is desperately trying to declassify a report that they did on the entire American torture program. And it is being viciously resisted by the CIA, which wants to burnish its reputation and to prevent a thorough-going history from being told. So it's interesting the way that stories end up being terribly important because if we are to move forward, we really have to understand where we've been. And there's a determination, it seems, on the part of the powerful, who are looking to be embarrassed, to prevent those important stories from being told. And that's very current, right up to date, right now.

Are you surprised, though, that it's still debated that the issue of torture and what we should do — that there is still such a large percentage of the American public thinks that under certain circumstances, it's still OK if it means saving American lives?

I'm still shocked. And mostly, I think it has to do with poor education. The fact is that this pro-torture campaign, which has been led by Dick Cheney and so many others, has just been led in order to vindicate themselves. But there's absolutely no valuable literature that shows that torturing people gets the goods. In fact, many of the techniques that were used by the CIA, so-called waterboarding and a number of other techniques, were techniques that we adopted from the Russians. And they use those techniques not to gain the truth but to try to use for political purposes, to get false confessions for political purposes. Now, what does that tell you about torture? And there's a whole host of military personnel, particularly high-ranking generals, who are furious about this. They know that it degrades morale. It undermines discipline and is adverse, fundamentally, to the most sacred American values and I would say, Western values. This goes back to the Magna Carta and habeas corpus. I mean, the idea is that you don't inflict pain on people when you have them in your custody. And you certainly don't expect to get the truth when you do so.

Another theme that seems to pop up frequently in your work is the obsession with winning at all costs. You look at what happened at Enron, which, of course sort of told the story in real life of the kind of things that we saw in Wolf of Wall Street, the, kind of, crazy corruption and what goes on in some rogue American corporations. You also have Casino Jack about Jack Abramoff the former lobbyist who ended up going to jail. And also in Catching Hell, which interestingly looks at Steve Bartman — poor Steve Bartman, the guy who went for the foul ball at the Cubs game and people unfairly blame for somehow continuing the curse and also Bill Buckner who famously booted a ground ball in the World Series — so that it took many more years before the Boston Red Sox ended their drought of winning World Series. Do you think it's sort of an especially American or particularly American issue?

I don't know. I think some of them are. Some of them are universal issues. It was funny about Catching Hell, for example. We spent a lot of time talking about the scapegoat in that. And actually, we traced the scape — back way back to Biblical times — when people used to drive, literally, goats out of town that were supposed to be imbued by all the sins of the community.

But I became interested in scapegoating precisely because of Taxi to the Dark Side. The excuse about Abu Ghraib was it was just a few bad apples. And that was a way of deflecting attention from the fact that Dick Cheney had basically set in motion a policy of torture throughout the system. I became very interested in that idea of scapegoating because that it's a way of deflecting attention onto sometimes more fundamental and serious issues.

That's how I approached Jack Abramoff when I spoke to him in prison. I said, "There are a lot of people who want to make you the one rotten apple." And I said, "I bet you want to talk about how rotten is the barrel," which he did. Ultimately, the Department of Justice wouldn't let me talk to him.

Enron is a pretty interesting case. And there's something, I think, that is fundamentally American, which is there is in this culture, I think, an ethic of win at all costs. If you win, nothing else matters. And I think, in a way, that's what became interesting to me about the Lance Armstrong story. That was both what made him great and what made him terrible, in moral terms because he would do anything to win.

And he fooled you. Your initial movie about Armstrong was supposed to be entitled The Road Back, about his comeback. Instead, it ended up being The Armstrong Lie. You say you've been lied a lot of times, but never as well as by Armstrong.

He's one of the best. I had to make myself a character in that film because I had to be honest and say part of the Armstrong story is that he created a lie that was so beautiful that we all wanted to believe it. You know, the cancer survivor who gets back from a near-death experience and then, wins the Tour de France seven times. Who doesn't want to believe that story? And millions of cancer victims all over the world were deeply invested in that story. But I think you see in that determination to succeed at all costs that ultimately, then, the lie doesn't matter so much. You start telling a little lie. Then, you tell a bigger one and a bigger one and a bigger one. That's what happened at Enron too. They didn't start manufacturing a huge fraud. They started a little corner-cutting here and there. And then, the next thing you knew, the whole company was a fraud.

And thousands of people suffered. And you looked at the Catholic Church too and do you think that's what happened there also?

I think there's something different that happened there. I mean that you're talking about a film called Mea Maxima Culpa. I was interested in that film because I was interested in this group of deaf men that actually fought back. They had been abused by priests and nobody was interested.

Very early on?

Very early on in their childhood, but nobody was listening — interested in hearing their story. Now these are deaf men. They have a hard time being heard. But they made themselves heard, right on up to the Vatican, right on up to the Pope. I think the psychological process at work in that film was something the police call noble cause corruption, the idea that if you're in a noble cause or a holy cause — you know, if a few kids are hurt, you know, look at all the good that we do.

And you begin to convince yourself that there isn't a problem here and somehow that clericalism is more important, that the priesthood is more important than these victims because, after all, there is a higher calling here. And you can see how that leads to a deep-seated corruption that, ultimately, invokes cruelty on a vast scale. Because the problem there is not — we can recognize that there are predators around us. It's going to happen not only in the church, but in public schools and everywhere else, and you have to watch out for predators. The big problem with the Catholic sex abuse scandal is how that sex abuse was aided and abetted by a cover-up at the very top. And they would move priests around, and they would never hold them accountable. And they would lie to people about whether or not they had done these things. So victims felt shut out. The subtitle of the film was "Silence in the House of God." There was silence by the church, and, ultimately, it took deaf people — a small group of deaf men to break that silence.

There's a determination, it seems, on the part of the powerful who are looking to be embarrassed to prevent those important stories from being told.

One thing you haven't tackled as much is creativity and artists. Now, you're going after Sinatra. What you're doing is a few hours for HBO.  How do you think the documentary will tell the story in a more important way than a drama from Hollywood?

Well, it's the real story. And it's going to be narrated by Sinatra himself. We have access to some fantastic audio tape of him reflecting on his own life. And his life, I think, at large is also the story of America. He is the son of immigrants, Hoboken, New Jersey, the striving to get across the river. We know about — his relationship with the mob – his enormous gift as a singer, his generosity and his cruelty. All these things come to bear in a man that embodies the sort of glories of the American Dream and occasionally its dark side.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Al Jazeera America presents an intimate look at the lives of teenagers at the crossroads of now and the future on EDGE OF EIGHTEEN. Fifteen stories. One incredible journey. Starting Sunday at 9pm ET / 6pm PT.

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