Homeroom completes a trilogy of documentaries local filmmaker Peter Nicks has made about particular institutions under pressure in his own burg of perpetually embattled Oakland. 2012’s The Waiting Room spent time drinking in the perseverance of staff in the constant crisis atmosphere of Highland Hospital’s ER, the medical option of last/only resort for many poor and uninsured locals. Five years later, The Force examined a couple rocky years for the city’s Police Department, which was on its fifth new chief in a decade, amid cries for reform that stretched from street protests to imposed Federal oversight. Both films had a rigor of verite observation that eschewed any overt editorializing, or hint of easy answers to complex problems and injustices.
Nicks’ latest feels less neutrally detached, no doubt because its principal figures—seniors at Oakland High School—tend to view the world in politicized terms (esp. re: racial politics) atypical for their age group in general. And the political issues they’re concerned with seem very much present in their campus life, where a mostly non-white student body is uneasily “protected” by a dedicated police presence that eats up a big chunk of the school district budget, while at the same time popular and valuable programs are being cut for lack of funds. Many kids here have had personal experiences that would make them wary of cops (to say the least) even if the world they live in weren’t more dominated every day by highly publicized incidents of police brutality, and responsive Black Lives Matter protests.
Theirs is the Class of 2020, which means that they started the academic calendar still reeling from a prior year’s local teacher strikes and school closures. They will be ending it, of course, amidst yet another emergency, this one unforeseen, their graduation ceremonies reduced to virtual ones held via Zoom. But COVID almost seems incidental, a bizarre external distraction from the ongoing societal issues of race, class, power, and grievous division. When the School Board holds a public meeting to discuss budget cuts pre-shutdown, the atmosphere is so rancorous that student leaders get shouted down by parents—even allies are too angry to hear each other anymore.
Unlike many high school documentaries, Homeroom offers almost no glimpse of lives at home, and indeed it’s somewhat disappointing that we don’t get much sense of Oakland High’s curriculum, either. (This is in dramatic contrast to the recent Try Harder!, which portrayed an alarmingly achievement-driven student population at SF’s high-ranked Lowell High School.) In classrooms, the apparent tolerance for kids looking at their phones—and even taking calls—surprises.
Many do apply for college, but expectations for the future are cautious—these young adults are largely from communities where survival has been a more pressing concern than the upwardly-mobile notion of “excelling.” Even in their teens, they appear to prioritize social justice issues and advocacy well above grade-point average, and Homeroom follows suit. This is ultimately much less a film about high school life inconvenienced by a pandemic than it is about adolescents already “majoring” in activism, seeing protest as an inevitable necessity against systems which do not benefit them as they ought. Homeroom is playing some theaters (including SF’s AMC Kabuki and Oakland’s Grand Lake), as well as debuting on streaming service Hulu, as of Thurs/12.
If Oakland High pupils have crises thrust upon them, the protagonists of Matt Yoka’s Whirlybird forged careers chasing crisis. In the 1980s and ’90s, married couple Bob Tur and Marika Gerrard were freelance TV reporters who ran Los Angeles News Service, which set the standard for sometimes-literal ambulance chasing by air. Their helicopter buzzed Madonna and Sean Penn’s wedding, earning a one-fingered salute from the bride herself; helped immortalize OJ Simpson’s long Ford Bronco drive to nowhere; recorded trucker Reginald Denny’s beating amid the 1992 LA riots; and dogged Rock Hudson’s last trip to the hospital as he was dying of AIDS. They covered fires, crack house busts, plane crashes, and celebrities from Nancy Reagan to Angelyne.
Pilot Bob flaunted air regulations, getting his license suspended more than once; his heedlessness sometimes also extended to the rescue of disaster victims. Marika was attracted to the “whirlwind of excitement” he stirred, though it often tipped into “explosive anger” both on and off the job. They had two children (one being subsequent broadcast journalist Katy Tur), who were frequent ride-alongs. Their experiences are often recalled in terms like “a real rush…a high…orgasmic,” though today all four family members are interviewed separately—as if lingering PTSD makes it unendurable for them to inhabit the same room.
Whirlybird is a colorful personality portrait and an implicit indictment, with Bob—who is Zoey, having undergone gender transition in 2014—exemplifying the twain. “Testosterone in my system equals asshole,” she observes in retrospect. Though that occasional self- criticism is sometimes outweighed by self-pity, and/or a sense that hey, bridges get burnt, whattayagonnado. (It does not appear that Zoey is communicado with either the ex-wife or now-adult children.)
What the Turs did was addicting, and toxic, and they helped addict Americans to a toxic new level of media “investigation” which often made a bad situation worse. (There’s a good montage here of Black citizens in South Central telling their cameras to F.O., having learned that such context-free public gawkings seldom benefit the gawked-at.) Whirlybird is one of those documentaries that tells an engrossing story, yet you may find yourself thinking “The world might be a better place if these people had never existed.” It’s playing Roxie Virtual Cinema as well as other streaming platforms including iTunes, Apple TV and Amazon Prime.
To further scratch that documentary itch, a free non-fiction showcase is starting this week on BAMPFA’s Outdoor Screen in downtown Berkeley. This Thu/12 there’s a preview of Abby Ginzberg’s Barbara Lee: Speaking Truth to Power, a portrait (which opens in regular theaters Aug. 20) of the veteran progressive Congresswoman. The short series will also include two of the last year’s best doc features: On Thurs/26 Liv Rovner’s Sisters With Transistors (which we previously reviewed here), about pioneering female electronic musicians; and on Thurs/Sept. 6 Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht’s Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (see 48 Hills’ feature here). For full program details, click here.