Nanette Burstein just may be the queen of do-it-yourself documentaries and American Teen can prove it. The Academy Award nominee started her career as the writer and editor of the 1998 doc In the Name of the Emperor, which detailed the brutal 1937 massacre of more than 300,000 Chinese civilians. But her real claim to fame came with the 1999 movie On the Ropes, which she produced, directed and edited. The documentary, about the injustices of life in the boxing arena, won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier that year and picked up a nomination for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards the next.
Burstein followed the success of On the Ropes with The Kid Stays in the Picture, about famed Paramount producer Robert Evans, for which she played the roles of director and producer once again. More recently, Burstein was an executive producer for the 2004 short-lived reality TV series “Film School,” which chronicled the trials and tribulations of a small group of New York University graduate film students as they prepared their thesis projects.
Burstein’s latest project, American Teen, yet again pushes the boundaries of documentary moviemaking. The film, which employs elements of traditional nonfiction narratives, such as using a handheld camera to film wide shots and matching close-ups, follows the lives of five teens—each a representative from a particular social group—struggling through their senior year of high school.
“Like most people, I struggled through my own high school years,” Burstein says of her motivation for the film. “I wanted to make a film that explored the very real and very intense pressures of being 17: Of trying to figure out who you are while pushed by your peers to be a certain way, pressured by your parents as to who you should become and face the mounting pressure to make crucial decisions—inevitably, poorly informed ones—about your future,” she explains. “I wanted to explore the theme of struggling to find your identity, not with actors, but with real teenagers.”
Although Burstein may have had trouble fitting into more than one role in high school, she seems to have no trouble doing so now, as she directed, produced, wrote and edited her newest effort, which earned the Documentary Directing Award at Sundance earlier this year.