It is a pleasure to encounter the five winners of the National Video Festival Student Competition sponsored by the American Film Institute. The festival continues through tomorrow at the Kennedy Center. The winning tapes will be shown tonight at 9 on Channel 26.
They're not perfect, no, no, no, but they all suggest -- sometimes with ingenuous and earnest amateurism, sometimes with frisky imagination -- that life with television, and television with life, are just beginning. Of course, that may be wrong, but it's an attractive suggestion.
"The Ruling Classroom," winner in the documentary category, is a video verite account of teacher George Muldoon's experiment with his seventh grade class at California's Mill Valley Middle School in 1979. An earlier project, in which a class set up a microcosmic American society, resulted in corruption at the highest levels of government and cries of "Kidgate" in local newspapers. For the project that is the subject of this tape, Muldoon let the children set up their own country -- a "democratical" country, one student calls it -- write their own laws and start their own businesses.
Almost immediately, media problems arise. Most of the tape is devoted to combat over items printed in the "Juicy Junk" column of the students' newspaper. The first alleges a romance of sorts between Louie and Laura, classmates. Riana and Karen, the editors, claim that one citizen "went totally sue crazy" over the item: "He wanted to sue anybody, because he was a lawyer."
But when the paper reports that a student has been slapped by a teacher, the game gets serious. A trial is held at which a student says of the report, "Some people believe it and some people think it's horseblank." The trial is stopped by the principal on the grounds that things are getting out of hand, and the mock-government sinks into the apathy that afflicts all bureaucracies sooner or later.
The printed retraction in the school tabloid is headlined "Newspaper Blunders."
Although the camera work is often irritatingly erratic, this black-and-white tape by Peter Bull and Alex Gibney is a convincing record of the project and a brief but evocative immersion in classroom ambiance -- the trendy-affluent variety.
"Octogenesis," Janice Tanaka's winner in the experimental category, is a five-minute meditation using lots of technical tricks, multiple images and one particularly arresting allusion of a figure disappearing over a violently flickering landscape. But the imagery is on the didactic side (Nixon's face superimposed over scenes of Vietnam devastation) and not very fresh.
"The Second Edition," produced at the productive Downtown Community Video Center in New York's Chinatown, is a magazine show, winner in the informational category, made by nine youngsters between 8 and 14, eight of whom are of Chinese descent. Thus the first module on the program is a tour of Chinatown, "a thriving community," with visits to tourist sites, an old people's home and a recreation center where T'ai Chi is taught. An elderly man is learning it because he's tired of just sitting at home and watching television.
Other subjects covered include the Guardian Angels, a law-and-order youth group that patrols streets and subways, bat boys at Shea Stadium, and Dick Cavett, who good-naturedly gave the kids an interview. What the program lacks in polish it more than makes up for in esprit de corps. The young woman who anchors the program never quite makes eye contact with the camera -- though she seems to make eye contact with everything else in the room -- but she is wonderful, just the same.
"May you have as much fun and as much success as we have had over the past seven weeks," she tells viewers. The seven-week workshop was funded through the CETA summer youth program; if David Stockman can trim that one after watching this tape, he truly has no heart.
Paul I. Meyers, who lives in Washington, won in the special achievement category for "The Buck Killers," an impressionistic 15-minute visit to Joe Carpenter's Hunting Club in Wagram, N.C., where paunchy good ol' boys shoot deer and tear up the shirttails of any member who misses. Without any interfering narration or heavy-handedness, the tape makes the ghastliness of the sport painfully clear.
But the showiest item on the bill, the finale, is the 80-minute "Highlights from the New Directors' Film Festival," winner in the drama category and not really highlights from a film festival at all. The tape both spoofs and celebrates the passions of possessed young artists and intercuts work on five fake films with the five feuding and fondling filmmakers who are trying to shove their statements down the world's throat.
Much sex and some violence ensues; the language is occasionally rough by TV standards.
The narrative organization, by director Thomas G. Musca, is ambitious and effective; the tape and the interlocking stories tumble out in seeming confusion that keeps turning to coherence. Some of the games played with fantasy/reality perspectives are reminiscent of Richard Rush's exhilarating "Stunt Man."
Among the young actors, Jennifer Morehead is a standout as Jennifer, who makes a film called "Homo Exrectus," as is Ed Pansullo as Ivan, who is making a film called "norwegian Apache" and fancies himself blood brother to the oppressed Indian. You don't know how hard I have to try just to be weird," Ivan says, and the film occasionally tries too hard as well, but much of it is antic, funny, and even, when Ivan romances an inflatable woman, or tries to incinerate himself on a satellite dish, touching.