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girlhood (2003)
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by Chris Parry

"One of the finer documentaries I've seen in my lifetime."
5 stars

With the advent of digital video, the world of the documentary became somehow murky from an audience perspective. Sure, more people could make them, and with lower budgets than previously, but the level of quality seemed to take a big nosedive when it somehow became 'okay' to have your camera out of focus, your subject in front of flat backgrounds and your narrative slightly confused. Oscar-nominated doco-maker Liz Garbus uses digital video in her work, but you'd never know it by looking at 'girlhood', a work that is as professional, hard-hitting, poignant and relevant as any documentary I've seen in the last five years... maybe ever. Frankly, the only thing about it that annoyed me was that it had to end.

Shanae and Megan are inmates (is that the right term?) at a Baltimore juvenile detention facility. Shanae stabbed a friend to death when she was 12. Megan was tagged with an 'assault with a deadly weapon' charge when she was 14. Right now you're thinking to yourself 'damn criminals, they're just getting younger and younger'... right?

Well that where 'girlhood' blows you away, because you can not watch this flick and come out of it thinking these girls are just plain bad. Garbus follows them for nigh on three years as they go through the Baltimore juvenile justice system - a system that would be properly considered broken if it weren't for some of the people that staff this particular facility.

Shanae is as smart as any kid of her age that you'll ever meet. When she's sat down in fron of Mr Mustaf, an ethics trainer who seems to have got his textbooks from a church sale in 1952, she properly and resoundingly points out to him that his idea of 'positive image', a man and woman in business attire holding hands at arm's length from each other, isn't anyone her idea of a 'positive image'. When Mr Mustaf refers to a couple of baseball cap-wearing males in a picture as 'scumbags', she turns the term back on him and points out that judging them based on their dress and situation makes him the scumbag.

Clearly, Shanae (even at age 15) is a thinker. So is she a murderess, or was she a kid in a crappy situation who reacted out of fear and confusion?

Then there's Megan, a kid from a family of drinkers and drug-users, a kid who is also quick of wit and smarter than most. Megan's problem is she's been so starved of a positive role model in her life that she spends her days looking for attention and affection. That she's in her situation is no shock when you see her mother, fresh out of her latest jail stint, back on the Xanax and scratching her arms.

The question Garbus poses is a simple one - are these bad girls or are the people and situations they're around making them bad? It's a question many have asked and none, until now, have answered with any real clarity.

girlhood is an astounding look at the lives of two girls who, by rights, should be on a fast track to success. Whether they've been let down by circumstance, neglect, luck or momentary stupidity isn't really what we need to figure out, what we need to figure out is how to bring them back.

Garbus gets closer than most to the core of her story, but manages to avoid becoming a major part of it, while taking the audience on a perfectly timed ride of emotions. The film is a well-balanced, non-stop look at something we hope we'll never have to see first-hand, but at the same time it takes us in deep enough to make us think, 'there, but for the grace of God...'

With so many juvenile offenders being treated by the courts as adults today (and the number growing rapidly, as the age of such offenders drops like a stone), this film could not be more timely. When we call for a 10-year-old killer to be locked away for life, who are we protecting? What are we achieving? Are the armchair quarterbacks of the justice system really looking for rehabilitation or revenge?

In the final scenes of this film I did find a question popping into my head - what would the mother of the dead girl think about this? But in the end, I answered that question with a simple "it doesn't matter. One life has been extinguished - are we really better off as a society by raising that number to two?"

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the result of a perfect documentary experience. It asked me a question, it allowed me to find my answer, and it left me better for the experience.

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originally posted: 03/09/03 08:39:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 SXSW Film Festival. For more in the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 San Francisco Film Festival. For more in the 2003 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Minneapolis/St.Paul Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Minneapolis/St.Paul Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
2/04/08 Alyssa It really touched me 5 stars
5/22/05 keri i think this movie is awesome. Good for kids to watch who are in the same situation 5 stars
10/20/04 C.J. This is definately a good film! If you see it on DVD, watch the directors commmentary too! 5 stars
8/18/04 Anais It made me realize to stop living my life the way i am and to change 4 da better 5 stars
7/30/04 Imani I thought that this Documentary was very good. 5 stars
12/13/03 Enixa Almonte I think that this movies was phenomenal!!! 5 stars
12/06/03 reanna scott makes me wanna break out of my life/ head/ privlage as a white art school 20 yr old help 5 stars
11/07/03 Ian Robertson Certainly as powerful a documentary as her previous work, The Farm, about Angola Prison, LA 5 stars
11/06/03 Madalyn Benoit As Good as Documentaries Get 5 stars
8/12/03 Karen This is one of, if not the best documentary ive ever seen. 5 stars
6/15/03 Rashid Muhammad Great film. Makes you wonder how many other like this are being written off. 5 stars
5/20/03 Tod PFFT 1 stars
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  31-Oct-2003 (NR)
  DVD: 18-May-2004



Directed by
  Liz Garbus

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