Teenage kicks

Matt Wolf and Jon Savage talk about their documentary on the emergence of youth culture.

by Amber Wilkinson

Teenage Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
Matt Wolf's documentary Teenage - based on the book by British author Jon Savage - is out in cinemas now and screening as part of the Glasgow Youth Film Festival. The film traces the origins of the breed of youngsters we now know as "teenagers", examining their emergence across three cultures. When the film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year, we caught up with Wolf and Savage to discuss it.

Can you talk a bit about finding the archival footage?

Matt Wolf: Yes, the archival footage is the foundation of the film so before we even figured out what story we were going to tell, we started doing archival research and that process was led by an extraordinary researcher named Rosemary Rotondi and she worked with a team of researchers in Washington DC, Germany and England. And basically, we gave her a vast, expansive list of topics when we started working together and she returned and incredible amount of footage. From there, it gave us a sense of the scope of what we could cover - what periods we could cover, what storylines that were yielding results and then would refine that list and go further and get more material. Shots like this are what we want or let's keep digging deeper for German swing kids footage or there's tons and tons of footage of swing jamborees, this is great, we're totally fine covering swing. So that process went on for several years. I think of it that the film is like a boulder. I had to take some dynamite and explode it into a million little pieces which are all the archival clips that came back to me from the different archives. My job is to organise all that stuff and to create it into a new shape in the form of a teenager or an object of its own.

And what about the multicultural aspect of the film and the differences between the three countries?

Teenage director Matt Wolf
Teenage director Matt Wolf Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival
MW: Their circumstances were so extraordinarily different. That contrast was really important because our film is about competing ideas of youth and competing models for organising and empowering and controlling youth. Those tensions. The film shows how adults try to groom teenagers into a conforming unit at the same time as teeangers kick against that.

Jon Savage: We wanted to have the struggle. We didn't want to have a Rock n Roll Years, 'Wahay, wasn't it all fabulous, here are flappers, here were swing kids'- because that wasn't the context. The context was these wider forces and the context was the mass society and the drive towards regimentation and homogenisation that existed then.

MW: I think the topic is a very global topic but with such panoramic subject matter it's important to telescope the focus. And I was taking cues from John's book, which was based primarily on America, England and Germany but also included France. We ended up narrowing down the scope to just America, England an Germany because these generational conflicts were playing out most intensely in those regions. We felt that by focusing on the early 20th century, this pre-history of teenagers in these three countries, we could tell a kind of definitive story about how ideas of youth found a form at the end of World War II and that form was the teenager.

JS: Also there's a very important subtext to the film which I'm very excited about, which is enfranchisement. Which goes back to the multicultural aspecct in another sense, which is to do with marginal societal groups getting power. Obviously, there's a bit of race in that.

There is quite a lot of footage of women in the film, was that hard to come by?

JS: That was particularly challenging. But in the book, there's a lot of stuff. In fact, the main people who wrote diaries were young women. The diary of a young woman was an absolute cornerstone of youth culture, going back to Marie Bashkirtseff and ending, obviously, with Anne Frank, probably the best known teenager in the world.

What about the soundtrack - is it all archive form the period and what about the narration?

Teenage author Jon Savage
Teenage author Jon Savage Photo: Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival
MW: The narration is a mix. We sourced a lot of it from teenage diaries and journalistic sources and written testimonies, but there's some that we scripted as well to shape our film into a narrative. John told me about this kind of thing that he noticed during the punk era, which he covered widely at the time. He saw these young teenagers seeking thrift clothes from the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and the Sixties and cutting them up and reassembling them with safety pins into something that felt totally new. He called that living collage and that became a kind of philosophy of the filmmaking of Teenage - visually but also in terms of the scriptwriting. It was about finding these fragments of teenage sentiments and captions and quotes of their voices and compositing them into a kind of broader voice of youth of the time.

Can you tell us about the decision to include re-enactment as well as original archive footage?

MW: I didn't want this film to just be a sweeping intellectual history - I wanted to have an emotional impact. For me - this is a device in John's book - there are biographies of a lot of characters, particularly unknown, forgotten teenage figures from history. I thought it was really important to telescope into stories of individuals for that emotional interpretation. Basically, these figures from history - Brenda Dean Paul, a notorious Bright Young Thing, drug addict, or Melita Maschmann, Hitler youth or Tommie Scheel, a German Swing Kid or Warren Wall an African American Boy Scout. These were real figures that we found in primary sources but there are no photographs or footage of them and we had to resort to creative filmmaking to bring them to life. What I'm most interested in with recreations is shooting footage that is in the actual format and style and look of the exact period and I like to integrate those scenes seamlessly with actual archival footage. The end result is very immersive.

JS: Also you have the dreaminess of what being a teenager is sometimes like. I was a very dreamy teenager so I love the idea of the dreaminess. In a way, part of the film should be a dream because a lot of the classic teenage texts are to do with dreams. There is a sense of issues that affect teenagers being cyclical.

MW: You see the London riots or other kind of outbursts or the student protests. We also see the same pattern of adults condemning youth as a kind of social problem and these moments of unrest that stem from broader crisis that effect the future. Youth being the stakeholders in the future are completely affected by the economic crash and that leads towards all sorts of outbursts.

JS: The last really bad recession was when I was leaving college in 1975/76 and that resulted in punk, which in a way is another start to this film.

MW: This is what we as adults do, we look at young people and say, they're more apathetic or apolitical or lost than any generation that came before but I think history proves that that never really is true. There are always these exceptional young people that go against the grain.

There's a sense that ociety would like teenagers to be 'in their place'.

Teenage. Jon Savage: "Both Matt and I are idealistic about youth.
Teenage. Jon Savage: "Both Matt and I are idealistic about youth.
MW: You see in the teen canteen section of the film, these young people who are finally given this opportunity to create their own social space with the polite supervision of adults. But then, at the end, you see kind of the process of manipulation when the adult convinces the young person to choose to control one's self. The end of the newsreel says, "We've always known that the teen canteen has been about social control" and you know, the film in many senses is about all these kind of undermining and subversive forms of social control that are imposed upon youth. For one thing, I do think that the mass explosion of teen consumerism is a form of social control. Young people are totally dependent on their parents' pocketbook to express themselves. And it's during times of economic recession that I think young people have to get more creative about how to choose a different path.

JS: Both Matt and I are very idealistic about youth. We're very much of the idea that when you're 20 years old, you're hardwired to deal with the world as it is. You come out into the world, it's not made by you, it's made by adults, you don't like it, you want to chage it for yourself and maybe change it for everybody else as well. And that is something that's quite natural, it's not something that you have to force and kids will be out there changing thing for themselves in a way that we don't even yet know about.

How does it feel to see your book turned into a film?

JS: I'm old, you know. Matt's half my age, so it's really great. The difference in generations really works because we have a lot in common and then we have a lot to talk about. So it's kind of fascinating. Obviously, I'd done the book and it's great to have someone who's younger with a lot of energy, who totally takes it on board and then takes it somewhere else. I like collaborating, I've made a lot of films. To me collaborating on films is very hard work but to me it's also kind of play because to me the real hard work is sitting in a room for years and years and years. Also, I don't have to do the work that Matt has to do, which is to sit in a room for months and months and months looking at footage and dealing with music cues. So, in a way, it's easier for me than for Matt because all I've got to deal with really is the words, also helping to shape the form. But Matt has to do the grunt work. I'm thrilled to bits, I keep on saying it but I really do think that. The film stands by itself. It's not an adjunct to the book.

It still feels very fresh because we were in all kinds of processes of discovery when we were making the film. So the film was in a state of becoming, which is what teenagers are - so it actually matches its subject matter. To me, it feels incredibly fresh because of that.

MW: Four years, it's been a long haul but its been worth it. It's always so weird to finish something. I'm looking forward to it just existing in the world and not trying to control it.

JS: We're still in touch with our teenage selves.

MW: It's a healthy attitude to be in that place of discovery and openness and to be open to new and different things. I always hope to have meaningful realtionships with people who are younger and older than me and to never be in a position of condemnation or judgement of young people but to always be open to obserrving and thinking about what they're doing and what they're interested in.

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