“Documentaries are limited,” says producer Maria Finitzo. “They’re not complete portrayals of who somebody is; they’re just a slice of who they are. That’s always one of the things that is difficult, because you’re never getting the whole person.”
There are still plenty of frank, revealing moments in her new film, 5 Girls, which was produced in conjunction with Kartemquin Films (of Hoop Dreams fame) and follows the lives of five Chicago-area high school girls over the course of two years.
There’s the scene in which Corrie, a white, bisexual New Trier student, remembers coming out to her “fervently Christian” father while on vacation, after he kept asking if she was gay. “I wanted to come out to him so I didn’t have to lie to him,” she says, “and now it’s the big rift in our relationship. So we talk about nothing most of the time.”
Whitney Young student Haibinh, whose family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam ten years ago, is shown watching a video of her father, who owned his own business back home, at his factory job. “Do you have to do that every day?” she asks.
“Every day, same thing,” he replies.
Finitzo thinks the feature-length video is a far cry from the more freewheeling American High, the TV series that followed a year in the lives of 14 students at Highland Park High School. “I think our film is different in that the girls talked to us not the way they talk to each other, but the way they might talk to adults,” she says. “The strength is that adults and parents are able to hear what’s happening in their lives.”
She was inspired to do a project about teen girls five years ago, after reading Carol Gilligan and Lyn Mikel Brown’s Meeting at the Crossroads: Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, which examines how and why girls “lose their voice” when they hit adolescence.
“My goal was to make a film that portrayed girls in an accurate manner and showed their strength and resilience,” says Finitzo. After considering hundreds of girls at a dozen schools, she and her colleagues chose five they “thought would be capable of withstanding the attention a documentary crew would pay to them…girls who seemed to be really passionate about something, and who were engaging to listen to.”
In addition to Corrie and Haibihn, the subjects include Amber, an African-American honors student who has a falling-out with her mother and winds up moving in with her grandmother on the west side, where she hooks up with a drug dealer. Aisha, an African-American basketball player from River Forest, is coping with her parents’ divorce while resisting peer pressure and the demands of her overbearing father. The youngest girl, white Lab School student Toby, is dealing with her physician parents’ high expectations–one scene shows her mother questioning whether a book she wants to read is “too easy” for her.
All five girls attended a recent benefit screening at Steppenwolf Theatre. When asked to comment on how they were portrayed, “Some of them were humorous,” says Finitzo. “Aisha thought we underestimated her bowling skills” (in one sequence she’s shown lobbing ball after ball into the gutter). She also said she had a new understanding of why her father is so demanding–it’s because he loves her.
“Corrie felt that she was portrayed in a way that was not 100 percent accurate–that there is much more to her than her sexual identity,” Finitzo continues. “Toby wished she didn’t sound so young, but that’s what happens when you start a film when you’re 12.”
If she had to do it over again, Finitzo says, she’d choose to follow just three girls. “We shot over 180 hours of footage, which is a whole lot. But you’re going to miss stuff–there’s just no way around it.”
5 Girls opens this Friday at 6:15 and runs through next Thursday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. Tickets are $8; call 312-846-2800. After the final screening, on August 30, Finitzo and three of the girls will lead a discussion and question-and-answer session.