From the outside, Peter Nicks’ documentaries follow in the path of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional portraits. Nicks’s first, second, and third films (The Waiting Room, The Force, Homeroom) correspond to the subjects Wiseman arrived at for his second, third, and fourth (High School, Law & Order, Hospital). Critics have casually linked the two and called Nicks’ approach vérité, and all of this suggests the term and the affinity are baseless, or at least inexact.
The largest gulf between Nicks’ approach and Wiseman’s is surely how they conceive of knowledge. For Nicks, who structures Homeroom like a yearbook — generational distinctions, student events, and major clubs take center stage in all the sequences that precede the COVID-19 outbreak — meaning can be approached at face value. Vérité here seems to mean that there aren’t any location tags, voice-of-god narrators, or staged interviews. But, as in an extended TV news report, Nicks finds analogues for all of these conventions: establishing shots, radio snippets, and, conveniently, the to-camera addresses of student Instagram broadcasts.
Wiseman famously said that he enters an institution without doing advance research: though they don’t all bear this out equally, his films are the evidence of what he has learned. Nicks, on the other hand, is aligned with the majority of documentaries that receive distribution in North America: that is, those meant to back up a stirring takeaway. Though the film settles on a handful of recurring subjects, its main character is Denilson Garibo, a student director on the Oakland Unified School District board, a passionate orator advancing a community cause. Months before the pandemic, the call is to “Cut the police” that patrol and endanger school halls rather than approve a proposed budgetary diminishment of student services.
What’s amazing, though, is how little Nicks and his team are able to capture. I mean this not in terms of access or of the likely hundreds of hours that didn’t make it into the film’s final edit, but in terms of students’ experience (the film is not concerned with teachers or other school staff). By fitting its idea of an education to coverage of events that take Garibo on a heroic journey, the film narrows school life into the restoration of faith in a political process. (The few in-class scenes are depicted as inessential: the rare moments where instead of conveying a distinct speaker’s voice, the film leaves the clamor of diegetic sound intact.)
The film’s funding might explain some of this: it’s produced by Davis Guggenheim’s Concordia Studio, which is backed by major Democrat funder Laurene Powell Jobs. But it’s also, more generally, a fallacy of “kids are the future” thinking to privilege the most adult-like behavior and sentiments that can be found among the young. In Wiseman’s approach, even his most overdetermined structural conceits leave room for individual scenes, allowed to play out with a condensed theatricality, to disturb and annoy and surprise. For Nicks, everything is predicated on a generalized hype that peaks in star moments like a closing montage set to the slam poetry of Edgar Galvez, a student finally granted his spotlight after the pandemic canceled the school’s production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (in which he was set to star). In this way, Homeroom foregrounds particular students and their passions, but unquestioningly follows the received wisdom of high-performing achievement.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2021 — Dispatch 3.