We sat down with Caroline Suh and Erika Frankel of Frontrunners, a timely, smart, documentary about the student union presidential elections at Stuyvesant high school in NYC. The film is both a microcosm of what is happening in our country as well as a personal, human piece about these kids and their unique school environment.
Director Caroline Suh’s sweet, engaging documentary Frontrunners puts the student union presidential elections at Stuyvesant front and center, right there for all of us to observe, laugh at and talk about later. In fact, it is the conversation afterward that makes Frontrunners such a worthwhile film, as it forces us to look at the much bigger world of elections. Stuyvesant could act as a microcosm for America — the student election carries many of the same detestable themes that we see in the elections for public officials in this country. They deal with issues of racism, sexism and of course, the art of the spin.
AUSTIN DAZE: What was the inspiration for this project?
CAROLINE SUH: When we started out we wanted to make a campaign film but we wanted to do it with a twist. We really loved the old school campaign films like The Perfect Candidate and Primary but we wanted to do something with young people and do something funny. That was one of our goals. So that’s how the film started. We searched around for a real story where there was actually a real election story with teenagers and not just something that we would have to fabricate from nothing where it would really just be a popularity contest and where really no one cares. So we found out that Stuyvesant in New York City had these great elections and we knew about the school because we lived in New York and it’s a very prestigious and competitive school. It kind of just took off from there.
AD: How did you guys meet?
ERIKA FRANKEL: We met years ago actually at PBS working on some projects there. We’ve worked on a few different projects over the years but this is the first feature independent documentary that we’ve worked on. I think we are crazy enough to want to do it again.
AD: How did the students react to the camera?
CS: We were really surprised because they were very unselfconscious around the camera for the most part. Much more so than we would have assumed they would be. I think it’s because it’s that generation of people are much more used to documenting themselves and seeing themselves on videos. They make videos for their classes. They have seen reality television which is totally different than what we were doing but much more part of their culture.
AD: Did you find a difference between the teenagers of today and what you were like when you were a teenager?
EF: I think that what in a way charmed us about the place in some ways. It brings back all the memories about being in the school. The announcements; the buzzer ringing. The atmosphere in the school has this very intense teenager vibe. When you are there you just kind of feel very hyped up and kind of sweaty—it’s very hormonal. We lived by the life of the school, making appointments for 5th period. It was great.
AD: What’s next for you all?
CS: We’ve been talking about our next projects. Erica may direct a project next and I may direct another project but we love working together so we wanted to be supportive of whatever we do.
EF: We had a fantastic editor who is someone who we also knew from PBS so it was kind of a familial situation. Michael Tully who was our music supervisor is a friend of the editors. We liked the idea of over the years working on our own projects but also working together.
AD: Have you both always wanted to be documentary filmmakers?
CS: I haven’t always wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. At times I’ve wanted to be a writer but I kind of fell in love with documentaries.
EF: I started as an anthropologist. Film was just a medium to look at different cultures.
AD: Do you have any wisdom for other filmmakers just starting out?
CS: We were at the awards ceremony and a couple of people who one said, “You can do it.” And I totally agree with that. I think there is an intimidation factor sometimes and there is a block against starting but I do think that once you start it will take on a life of its own. It really is about the experience of making the film as well as everything after it. At least for us.
AD: How did you go about starting?
CS: We did have all the finances together and we owned a camera and sound equipment. We both work in the industry to make a living but decided we were just going to start doing this and everything kind of fell into place as we started filming. We knew certain things: how many days we were going to shoot and the price of post-production and we had all these ideas of these things but we really just started. These days if you have a camera and equipment you can just do it.
EF: I wanted to say for filmmakers, it’s supposed to be fun. We didn’t go into investment banking. We made a choice to make films because it is fun and we want to share it with people. Keep that in the back of your mind during those hard times.
AD: Can you talk to us about what you were trying to get across with this film?
CS: Yeah, that’s something I wanted to talk about. We really wanted the film to be a campaign film and it also became a slice of life film about the school because we really fell in love with the school and thought it was a really great place. It is a portrait of the school and it’s a campaign film also that’s driven by these great characters that we were lucky to find. We think it’s very, very funny.
AD: They have real personalities.
CS: They are wonderful. I think they all come across very well on film—they are very expressive in their own ways.
AD: Did you find that your perspectives changed at all about campaign film?
CS: It really became very clear to us while we were filming that we had to make it about the school. It’s a very unique place and that is definitely a big part of the story.
AD: Where are you headed after?
CS: We are trying to figure our distribution.