While many high school students can be apathetic to yearly customs like student council races, the students at Stuyvesant High School in New York City see the political ritual as more than just a campaign to choose a president who will fight for their rights for more Tater Tots during lunch or extra funds for the Homecoming Dance. At Stuyvesant, a student council race is a rite of passage.
In her documentary film “Frontrunners,” director Caroline Suh highlights four students running for student council president from Stuyvesant, a high school considered by many as one of the most prestigious and competitive public institutions in the U.S. In the film, Suh demonstrates how intense students can become when they enter the world of politics through humorous and intelligent conversations with the candidates, teachers and the entire student body.
During a phone interview, Suh talked about her film, which will be available on DVD on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
What was it about this specific high school that led you to make a film about its students?
When I was in high school, I wasn’t very engaged in any activities. That was one of the things that motivated the film. I’m really interested in people who participate and do things. When I was that age, I was definitely not that way. These students are super-achieves. I didn’t want a school where the student election would be totally frivolous or where the student body was totally disinterested. The students at Stuyvesant take elections very seriously.
Did you ever forget these candidates were only teenagers?
Well, you definitely can relate to them as people. They were highly informed and incredibly smart. They were mature and very knowledgeable about the world. I didn’t forget they were teenagers, but they all were fully formed people in a lot of ways.
Do you feel you got an honest representation of the students at Stuyvesant? Sometimes when the cameras go on, people can act differently than when they’re off.
We did not find that at all and that was surprising to us. There was a level of unselfconsciousness. There were some things we were not privy to film. For instance, we were not invited to film any late-night parties (Laughs). But all of the candidates felt very comfortable in front of the camera. I think it has to do with their generation. They have cell phones and reality television, so to them [having a camera around] wasn’t very exotic.
Do you think 10 years from now these students will look back and think this high school election made any difference in their lives?
It’s hard to say. I think the film really shows that hard work pays off. I think it probably proves to people that you can make things happen for yourself. I don’t think any of the students will end up going into politics because they all have other things they want to do.
How did you want to portray the other students at the school – those looking from the outside in?
We wanted to include this “man on the street” component to the film. There really was an ironic distance that they all had. The ones that did follow the election and were interested weren’t caught up in it emotionally. They simply assessed the candidates and commented on them. Some of them were critical about it. Many of the teenagers understood the implicit issues in politics and picked up a lot about what is going on in the larger world.