One of the kids is named Brian, and he tells a board of officials at California's Chino Youth Training School for juvenile offenders, "By the time I get out of these institutions, you understand me, I'll be, you understand me, too old to even do anything, you understand me. I got a lot of goals that I won't achieve, you understand me, and I can't do them in here, you understand me."
The irony could hardly be less blatant, of course; they don't understand him, he doesn't understand them, and there are no likely prospects for outbreaks of understanding anywhere in sight.
Brian's monologue is one of several trenchant and heartrending episodes in "Tattooed Tears," an extra-ordinary documentary about the dilemma facing correctional institutions and society as crimes committed by juveniles increase. The 90-minute film will be shown at 10 tonight on Channel 26.
First if not foremost, filmmakers Joan Churchill and Nick Broomfield have not merely fired off another loaded "indictment" of the "the system," a system so often indicted as to have become impervious. Although some officials at Chino have objected to the film, "Tattooed Tears" really has a wider purpose than exposing ineffectual or dehumanizing treatment at a center that is supposed to rehabilitate young criminals. The film isn't just painting with alarm at Chino, nor does its heart bleed only for the inmates who have, after all, committed serious crimes.
What we have here is a moving, sometimes crushingly depressing essay on wasted lives. The filmmakers don't say that what's done at Chino is wrong (although the final shot in the film is of a young man bound and strapped to the bars of a cell), but there is the suggestion that maybe nobody anywhere knows precisely what would be right.
Especially in a summer of gasoline shortages, air travel anarchy, nuclear freak-outs and the imminent arrival of Skylab right on God-knows-whose head, it will be difficult to attract attention to social problems like those festering at Chino. Without narration, but with a large amount of authentic foul language and fleeting, shadowed nudity "Tattooed Tears" does command one's interest, to say the least.
Like some other documentaries, it will separate the television viewers who want to know what's going on in the world from those who think the mission of television is to help them forget it.
Much of the footage concentrates on a few prisoners: Brian, who was sentenced to Chino for only three months but earned three additional years while there; Marcus, or "Flats," who has tattooed tears on his cheek to represent his years of incarceration; Pedro, whose means of escape is to fantasize angels dancing outside the prison walls; and Ronnie, who slashes his own leg until it becomes a road map for rivers of blood.
"I want to bleed," he tells doctors at the facility. "'I want to get infected." He laughs. He whistles. He says if the doctors put stitches in his wounds, "i'll just bite them out."
Attendants and counsellors do not come off looking very brilliant about dealing with these kids - some of the inmates appear so viciously incorrigible as to be thoroughly beyond all hope - but neither do they seem ill-spirited or aloof. Just fundamentally helpless.
In classes, the kids are taught by machines that ask them questions and tell them to press buttons. "Now let's see how the hammer is used," one machine says. Later, an instructor offers a mind-boggling lecture to these social aliens on the American dream they're supposed to be dreaming. "Our country is really beyond any doubt the most advanced and sophisticated country on this planet Earth," he says. "There's no doubt about it."
And as for Pedro, the despondent fantasizer who barely will raise his eyes, a counsellor quotes Rousseau to him - "he was what you call a romanticist" - and assures him, "There's a lot of beautiful people out in the world, a lot of people who love and care."
Altough filmmakers Churchill and Broomfield are more manipulative and less dispassionate with their raw material - inarguably dynamite in this case - "Tattooed Tears" impressionistically conveys a sense of institutional breakdown similar in intensity to Frederick Wiseman's "High School" of a decade ago. It's just that we've moved from high school to the reformatory and everything's gotten much, much, much worse.
"Tattooed Tears" is another example of independent filmmakers bringing work of energy and importance to public television. It's a conscientious and considered accomplishment, but as of yesterday, fewer than 10 of the more than 200 public television stations in the United States had agreed to run the program, because its language makes it "controversial." In Boston, where "I, Claudius" was censored by WGBH to make it fit for oil company underwirting, they're still wringing their hands over whether to show "Tears" or not.
The conclusion to be drawn about public TV from this sorry state of affairs is the same as one to be drawn about Chino from the film itself, and that is, there's got to be a better way. CAPTION: Picture, "Flats" in "Tattooed Tears"