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SXSW 2008: Caroline Suh on “Frontrunners”

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03172008_frontrunners1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

Kofi Annan once told Alexander Payne that “Election” was the most purely political film he’d ever seen, which makes one wonder where the former U.N. Secretary-General would place the nonfiction “Frontrunners,” Caroline Suh’s study about the real life political process at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School. As the film immediately lets the audience know, Stuyvesant is one of the most prestigious schools in the country and a proving ground for some of the best and brightest — where a term as student union president could equal a ticket to Harvard or Yale. With so much at stake, the race for student government involves primaries, televised debates, newspaper endorsements and, yes, the usual schmoozing with constituents (which in one candidate’s case involves serving glasses of Pellegrino in the middle of a hallway “lounge”).

For most, this isn’t the typical high school experience, but then again, what is? Although the four candidates at the center of “Frontrunners” represent the familiar cliques of high school life — Hannah, the drama queen whose extracurriculars included a role in Todd Solondz’s “Palindromes”; George, the Max Fischer-esque go-getter; Mike, a seemingly withdrawn type who cruises by on his looks and charm; and Alex, the ill-prepared basketball player — the resulting election reveals a generation of teens that is at once diverse, but also media savvy and unafraid of resorting to old fashioned stumping for votes. The documentary is the first to be directed by Suh, who had previously been a producer on various PBS documentaries with Erika Frankel. Suh discussed the highs and lows of the campaign trail following “Frontrunners'”s world premiere at SXSW.

Coming from a producing background, did your heart sink when you found out that one of the candidate’s strategies involved blasting “Born to Be Wild” and “Teenage Wasteland” (songs with expensive licensing fees) to grab the attention of students walking to class?

Both Erica and I begged George, when we found out that this was part of his campaign strategy, to not play The Beatles or things that we knew we couldn’t license and of course, he kind of ignored us and played very expensive music. [laughs] We have a lawyer who’s very aggressive in terms of fair use issues and she’s been guiding us through the process. But as two people who are used to producing, it was very disturbing, but we had to go with it because it was the story and we couldn’t control what was happening.

Had you been wanting to direct for a long time?

I started doing this because I wanted to make films and needed to learn the craft and also, we need to support ourselves, but this was a great opportunity to not produce and do something that was my own, to not have boundaries and not have to make a program to time and not have to take notes that we didn’t agree with. It really was a great experience in that way.

03172008_frontrunners2.jpgA high school election also seems like a nice subject to ease into as a first project since it’s self-contained. Was that a consideration?

That was definitely a consideration. We wanted to tell a campaign story and we don’t really look at the film as a competition film, but more as a campaign film. We knew that there was an arc to the story, so that definitely made it more manageable, and we knew we’d be shooting for a limited amount of time, which actually enabled us to make the film because we could afford to. It wasn’t a situation where it would stretch on for months and months and we couldn’t afford to have a [D.P.].

Last night in the Q & A, you said you didn’t want to work with adults, but usually the maxim is “no kids, no animals” — how did high school politics come up?

CS: [laughs] Well, to be honest, we’ve worked on a lot of a serious subject matter docs and I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to be professional. As a producer, it’s also different — you do have to present yourself professionally, and I wanted to do something that was more relaxed, more one-on-one. I also look young and I’m a woman and when you’re dealing with “adults,” it’s a different kind of interaction. So it’s nice to work with teenagers where some of that outer stuff falls away.

Because of the Stuyvesant setting, you probably knew the election would be interesting, but in most high schools, elections seem to boil down to pithy popularity contests. Was that a concern of yours going in?

When we started filming, that was definitely a fear that oh, what if there’s no story? We didn’t have any control over it or the characters — luckily, they ended up being great and all very different from each other. But it was a huge fear. There could’ve easily been no story. We know there were going to be debates, and that’s great and fun, but we started to relax when we met the Spectator people [the Stuyvesant school newspaper, which must endorse a candidate] because they provided a context for the election that gave it some gravity.

Were you surprised by how civil the election was?

I don’t know if we had any expectations going in as to what it would be like. We were concerned that bad things would happen, because they’re only 16 and 17, and we didn’t want this to be something that ruined someone’s whole life, so we really were hoping that there wouldn’t be real world ugliness. We were lucky that didn’t happen.

You also kept the focus on the election, although there seemed like there could’ve been a natural inclination to learn a bit more about the adults.

That’s what we wanted to do. We felt strongly that the film is really about the election and how the kids have decided to be at school. It’s really their story, their public persona, and their private persona too, but it really is all about who they are at school. It was important to us that we keep it that way.

[Photos: “Frontrunners,” Suh Films, 2008]

For more on “Frontrunners,” check out the official site here.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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GIFs via Giphy

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