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The 20th century was the stage for tremors and earthquakes of social upheaval, providing radical (if very, very incomplete) shifts away from gender, sexuality, religion and race-based oppression. According to filmmaker Matt Wolf, the battle for the rights of young people stands among the great fights of the era.
“The early 20th century period is a time when young people faced incredible oppression from their parents, the governments, the police, and it was the beginnings of a real youth movement. Young people were struggling for the most basic forms of recognition,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They wanted to be treated like equals and to me I started to historically think that, ‘wow, this moment in the history of the youth movement should be looked at alongside other civil rights struggles’ and for all of those reasons I was drawn into all of these hidden and unfamiliar histories form the past.”
Wolf is the director of the new documentary Teenage, which provides a look at the development of the concept of the post-childhood adolescent. Based on a book by Jon Savage, who served as a co-writer on the movie, the film follows the road that young people took from beginning backbreaking work in mills and factories at the age of 12, all the way to the domination of teen pop culture.
Jason Schwartzman, a fan of Wolf’s previous film Wild Combination, served as an executive producer on the movie.
The road between working 80 hours a week and screaming at Elvis concerts while reading Seventeen Magazine was a long, winding and difficult one. Teenagers — though that was not a word until mid-century — were rallied and then sent to die in by the millions in World War I. Disaffected, they turned to the streets in Britain and the United States; in Germany, many were lured into the Hitler Youth.
“There was a total distrust and a kind of hatred of the parent’s generation. So to join the Hitler Youth was a way to be rebellious against your parents and to be idealistic about a better future. Unlike any figure in history, Hitler knew both how to empower youth and destroy them.”
The film uses both archival footage and recreations of several eras throughout the first part of the century, painstakingly designed to capture the appropriate time and place. It is striking just how similar teenagers were in, say, the 1930’s, when German youth began to rebel against Hitler and form swing dancing clubs. The filmmakers liken it to an original sort of punk rock, but with greater consequence; Hitler had those involved executed.
Teenage looks at the burgeoning teen culture in both Britain and Germany, but it credits the United States with the true birth of the concept. The political force of dedicated youths only continued to grow, seen most prominently in the 1960’s, when Savage came of age. Yet even more than marching and voting, it is the recognition that teenagers can be a major consumer force that leads to their “independence,” though as both the film and Savage note, there is a leash involved.
“What really kind of triumphs in America is consumerism,” Wolf explains. “Young people become empowered during the war as these influential consumers of magazines and cosmetics and music and fashion, and this is what lead towards their actualization as independent citizens with rights of their own and, after the war, this American model of the teenager spreads into this whole phenomena. So, in a sense, this is really and American story about an American invention.”
“There needs to be a ritual where children go into adulthood. You know, there needs to be some kind of ritual for adolescence and the great thing about the film, which you totally took on board, is that there are different models with dealing with that ritual,” Savage adds.
As for teens today, and what trails they might blaze? Looking to the past can help predict the future.
“I think the only way to talk about teenagers is to say each generation has its own task and its own time,” Savage offers. “One of the most powerful scenes in the film is the material from the 1930’s. That really resonated because a lot of kids are beginning to face similar circumstances of unemployment.”
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