I Do Get Involved
Hoop Dreams director Frederick Marx talks with Gadfly about his new documentary Boys to Men?, the relationship between filmmaker and subject, and his motivation for making films.
By Jennie Rose

Frederick Marx (named Frederick after the socialist scholar Engels) wanted to be a professional basketball player. Instead, he became a filmmaker and gained international acclaim as the director of the 1994 documentary called Hoop Dreams. Set in the world of amateur basketball, Hoop Dreams is a story of how race, class, and culture coalesce to impact three young mens' lives.

Picking up where Hoop Dreams left off, Marx’s newest film Boys to Men? The Crisis in Teenage Masculinity is the second of what he calls a three-part tragedy. The story of three New Jersey teenage boys on the threshold of adulthood, Boys to Men? follows their various struggles, offering a disturbing look at their difficulty transitions to adulthood. "I did have a hypothesis," Marx explains. "And it was that teenage boys across race, class, and culture are not making it because they’re not being consciously initiated and mentored."

Marx recently spoke with Gadfly after a screening of his new film by the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation.

Gadfly: Did seeing these three boys struggling make you want to get involved with the families, sit them down and help them talk things through?

Marx: As a rule, generally at one time or another, I do get involved. When and how I do it varies. But I do see my role as being one in which I can be of help, and I try to be. Sometimes that happens during the filmmaking. I was able to help bring a lot of the parents closer to their kids and vice versa by explaining one to the other. The problem is a lot of the rituals (like a bar mitzvah, for example) have been denuded of their real meaning. It’s almost symbolic of the way the culture has corrupted what were rites of passage and turned them into exercises of consumptive materialism.

Let’s talk about the boys. Spence is the only white, middle-class kid in the film. Yet he struggles perhaps as much as the others. Why is this happening even to kids of relative privilege?

We hear a lot about African American inner city kids who grow up without fathers, but the fact is suburban white kids grow up as much or more without fathers. The fathers may be living in the home, but they’re so absent through all the work they do to keep their heads above water in this capitalist society. It is interesting to note that in some ways they’re more isolated than African American inner city kids, because even if the latter don’t have fathers, culturally there’s more of an extended family. They see their aunties, uncles, cousins, friends… whereas partly due to geographic spread in the suburbs and socioeconomic reasons, middle-class kids don’t have that extended family. They have even less support.

What’s the tragedy with Cisco’s story?

To me the deeply sad paradox of Cisco’s story is that his greatest virtues as a nurturer and a caretaker, which have been scrupulously developed by his mother, have been developed to exploit him in a sense. They’re being developed so that she can make him into her caretaker. He’s such a bright, capable, loving young man, and to see that happening breaks my heart. The key for Cisco, which I try to point to, is that he needs mentoring, he needs a male adult hero. The thing he most needs is the thing he most fears, some really strong but loving male guidance. He hasn’t had any, and he’s been taught to fear it by his mother.

Al-Tran is the character who most obviously spirals downward into a depression during the movie, but he seemed the most hopeful and buoyant at the start. What happened?

Al-Tran is so acutely self-analytical, and he knows what would help. He says, "Well, I never had a dad to show me how to become a man. If I had one, I’d be ready to become a man, but as it is, I grew up with my mom and I’m just not." Subsequent to the filming I offered all three boys my services as a mentor. Al-Tran was the only one who consciously took me up on it, but it did not stop him from doing what he has this innate tendency to do, which is to undercut and destroy the possibilities that come before him.

I don’t see fathers as the panacea here. It’s more than that. It’s about being initiated yourself and then consciously initiating your son or mentee. It’s really essential.

I left the film knowing very well that there is a problem for boys in this culture, but frankly I didn’t have a sense of the solution. What is the solution to this problem?

I’ve done a risky thing commercially with this film, because in effect I’ve made an elaborate statement of "the problem" and it won’t be until I make the sequel Men to Boys and put the solution as I see it before the audience, that the two will be complete. I respect the audience enough that I don’t mind putting complex problems before them and letting them use the work as a common point of departure to discuss social issues.

If families watched this with their kids, it would be tremendously helpful. It’s a bridge across the gap that may exist between parents and their kids.

Was there a personal reason you wanted to explore the subject of teenage boys?

I went into this film thinking that my unconscious reason is I want to understand my own teenage years in more detail. Even though they were relatively happy, I can see how lost and confused I was. But what really became the deeper truth is it was really my surrogate parenting energy that was driving a lot of the film. I wanted to get right in there with the parents to figure out why they were doing what they were doing with their kids. I don’t have any kids, and in the last five to six years I have had this upsurge of mentoring/fathering energy. I’ve been mentoring younger filmmakers and young people in their personal lives. To some extent, I did that with Hoop Dreams, but this time I get in there and talk to Al-Tran’s mom, offering my own feedback after a long period of deep listening to both parties.

You only shot footage for about nine months. How did you get to such a level of intimacy with your subjects in such a short period?

One of the things I’m good at is gaining trust. It’s a function of my choosing to work with who I choose to work with. I sense a certain openness in the subjects to begin with. In the last 7-8 years, I’ve been conscious of my style, which is to model the vulnerability and openness that I seek in my subjects. People respond to that. If I’m willing to shed a tear, they’ll be that much more willing to do the same.

How much of the editing went into making sure there was a "message" in the film?

We shot for three to nine months, a total of 150 hours. One hundred of those were verite sort of field shoots. One hundred and fifteen were the stories, 25 to 35 were the focus groups of the boys in the studio. I was having my student co-workers doing the editing while we were shooting, but the bare- knuckles sit-down-figure-it-out-make-it-work editing took about six to eight months. My biggest difficulty as an editor, and I consider myself to be a very, very good one, is not discarding the message of the film in the face of really foregrounding the narrative. It takes me, in my own judgment, too long to arrive at the story I want to tell, because I hold too fast and dear to some of the message elements. But eventually I get there.

In discussions of documentaries in the academic sense, there’s a lot of talk about the responsibility of the documentarian to contend with the problem of objectivity. How do you handle that?

Objectivity does not exist, and documentarians need to recognize that. The question then becomes, "Where and how do I foreground my subjectivity, and how do I maintain consciousness around that subjectivity and the choices I make?" I constantly ask myself questions while making the film that relate to that. I decide my answers based on first being grounded and clear on "What is my own shit?" versus being compassionate to my subjects. And then at the same time, "What is the story I want to tell here?" I’m constantly weighing these factors against each other. I’ve evolved to a point where I resolve some of these questions differently than I would have 25 years ago.

I see what I do as being a compassionate witness. That’s a shorthand description of how I see my role. I’ve also made very self-reflexive docs. That’s where I started, but I’ve worked through a lot of the issues about reflexivity and ownership and point of view, and I’m just not there anymore. To me, I see so much in documentary that continues to grapple with that, and it looks self-absorbed. I’m kind of bored by that kind of film. And there’s so much that’s rich in society as a whole. Naval gazing is not the most interesting way to get there anymore.

Did the story steer off into territory you had not foreseen when you started the project?

Sadly, no. I’m one of the few filmmakers I know, even in the documentary world, who still will go into a project not knowing where it’s going to end. I love that flying without a parachute feeling, yet it’s absolutely important that I be deeply grounded in my starting hypothesis. I don’t want to pass myself off as a social scientist or something, but at any rate, I did have a hypothesis and it was "Teenage boys across race, class, and culture are not making it because they’re not being consciously initiated and mentored." Well, halfway through the film, I thought, "Oh my God. I’m wrong. Thank goodness. These boys are so wonderful. They’re vulnerable, articulate, loving, blah blah. Great. I can tell some happy stories." Well, no. As time wore on, I ended up with something close to the film I imagined at the beginning. What I didn’t realize at the beginning was the necessity of making the sequel, Men to Boys.

In the sequel, I’m going to film different boys. I will start with boys aged 15 to 16. There will be six boys in six different cities, and we will have six different initiating paradigms. I’ll follow the stories for maybe twelve months. The key will be to meet a subject with his family, present an issue in that youngster’s life, something he’s struggling with, see him go through the initiation with/without his father or with some kind of mentor. Then see him afterwards go back to his daily life. And see if over time this initiation has had an impact to change his sense of self, to meet the coming challenges of adulthood. Who knows what we’ll see? If the story is these kids aren’t making it, that’s the story I’ll tell, but my suspicion is that that won’t be the case.

This sounds very much like a cause.

It is! I don’t work on things I’m not deeply passionate about, because God knows, it’s such a pain in the ass to make these things. If I don’t feel deeply passionate about it, there’s no way I’m going to sustain it.