Girls in the Hood

Girls Like Us: The Texas Documentary Tour

Filmmakers Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane Wagner

Lisa no longer believes in Adam and Eve, and is pretty sure she knows how children are made. De'Yona thinks more about singing gospel than meeting boys. Anna's parents forbid her from even walking through the halls with the opposite sex, and Raelene has dropped out to spend more time with her baby. Any one of these four young women would serve as a compelling case study of teenage sexuality. Together, the four provide an insightful exploration of inner-city girlhood. As the subjects of the vérité-style documentary Girls Like Us, Lisa, De'Yona, Anna, and Raelene are four of the most memorable teenage characters captured on film. A sensitive, intelligent, and funny film, Girls Like Us, created by filmmakers Jane Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio, offers a potent glimpse of contemporary urban life as seen through adolescent eyes. Girls Like Us, which was named best documentary at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival before being broadcast nationally on PBS' prestigious documentary series P.O.V., will arrive in Austin on February 11 as this month's selection in the Texas Documentary Tour. Wagner and DiFeliciantonio will be present to discuss the film and answer questions. Intending to create a document that explored teenage sexuality, Wagner and DiFeliciantonio originally planned to spend a year with four teenage girls. However, after following Lisa, De'Yona, Anna, and Raelene for 12 months, the filmmaking duo found they had barely scratched the surface. Stretching their limited funds, Wagner and DiFeliciantonio maintained a stick-with-it-and-things-will-happen philosophy, hoping that, with a bit of tenacity, they could capture on tape the process of four girls developing into women.


"When we started, we hadn't envisioned much of a structure," Wagner said during a phone interview from her New York City office. "We thought we'd be able to tell these stories in a year, but after a year, the stories didn't have enough of a dramatic arc. Once we hit the fourth year, we felt we had a complete story for each.

"When you do a vérité film, of course it is impossible to know what will happen in your subjects' lives. You can't plan other people's lives." DiFeliciantonio grew up in the same working-class South Philadelphia neighborhood that her subjects did. She was familiar with some of the more universal adolescent problems that Lisa, De'Yona, Anna, and Raelene wrestle with in the film - boys, school, parental pressure. But DiFeliciantonio and Wagner also discovered that their four subjects, each the child of an increasingly rough urban world, were forced to cope with some intimidating and relatively new teenage hurdles. Drive-by shootings, drugs, homelessness, AIDS, and teenage pregnancies have become a familiar part of the contemporary urban landscape.

As a result, the journeys of the four young women are at times achingly difficult. One of Anna's friends, experimenting with rebellion against her very strict parents, is kicked out of the house after carving her boyfriend's name into her arm. Forced to find her way on the drug-plagued streets, the girl is terrified, and Anna worries for her safety. Lisa, a top student at a Catholic school and the daughter of a three-time divorcée, resents the misinformation about sexuality that is disseminated by her teachers. Deciding that a little straight talk and first-hand experience could go a long way, she begins experimenting with a series of boyfriends, finding that some are less respectful than others. De'Yona, a gifted gospel singer and a leader at a high school for the performing arts, seems destined for fame, but when her cousin is killed in an act of random violence, she loses focus and fails out of school. Raelene, the daughter of a drug-using mother, has at 16 already had a child, a miscarriage, an abusive boyfriend, and a string of lovers.


Together, the stories of these four young women in Girls Like Us give a sense of what it means to be teenaged and female in urban America. Palpable are the daily pressures on each of the girls, particularly in the arenas of love and sex. Girls Like Us is ultimately inspiring - each of these resourceful young women, traveling unfamiliar terrain without much outside guidance, has by the film's end come to terms with her own identity as an adult. "When we started, there was a lot in the media about teen pregnancy and about sexuality," Wagner said. "But, even though there were stories about the sexuality of teenage girls, there was nothing being heard from the girls themselves. We were really interested in giving voice to the experience of teenage girls, and seeing how the discussion of sexuality and desire had filtered down to them."

Lisa, De'Yona, Anna, and Raelene grew up within a two-mile radius, but none knew the others. In fact, each seems to come from an entirely different world and serve as a stereotype-confounding representative of an important South Philly ethnicity. Anna is first generation Vietnamese-American, De'Yona is African-American, Lisa is Italian-American, and Raelene is white. While shooting Girls Like Us, Wagner was primarily responsible for sound recording and DiFeliciantonio for camera. Together, the two edited nearly 300 hours of Super-8 footage into an hour-long work. DiFeliciantonio and the London-born Wagner met as graduate students in Stanford University's documentary filmmaking program. They founded Naked Eye Productions upon graduating in 1988, and in the 10 years since have created a number of works for radio and TV: 1997's Two or Three Things but Nothing for Sure, a short documentary about the author Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina), which won numerous festival awards in 1997; Culture Wars, a 1995 PBS documentary; Una Donna, which aired on National Public Radio; and Twinsburg, OH: Some Kind of Weird Twin Thing, broadcast on PBS. In addition, both Wagner and DiFeliciantonio have found success making films on their own. DiFeliciantonio won an Emmy Award for her documentary Living With AIDS, and worked on feature films including Kama Sutra, Philadelphia, and HBO's Citizen Cohn and Truman. Wagner's short film Tom's Flesh won an award at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, and she also created the acclaimed films Hearts & Quarks and Women, Children and AIDS.


Wagner and DiFeliciantonio are currently completing two films. Walk This Way, an exploration of diversity and tolerance in kids aged 9 to 11, will be broadcast this year on the USA Network. Reno Finds Her Mom, a documentary, will be broadcast on HBO sometime after. According to Lisa Heller, the executive director of P.O.V., Girls Like Us helped fill a huge programming gap - films about teenage life. While 1997 saw the release of a number of independent films about teenage girls, including Welcome to the Dollhouse, Foxfire, and Girls Town, television, and particularly public TV, has lagged behind. Hoping to circulate Girls Like Us beyond the limited circle of PBS viewers, Heller and P.O.V. used the film as the centerpiece of its 1997 Listen Up! campaign, which encouraged dialogue between teenage girls and adults in cities across the U.S. "It is so rare in public television that you'll find these kinds of depictions of young people," Heller said. "We go from Barney to opera without too much in between. I have enormous respect for Tina and Jane, who proved they have the patience and commitment to take a longitudinal look at teenage life."

Heller said she was impressed with how deeply Wagner and DiFeliciantonio connected with their subjects - the filmmakers seemed to build a real rapport with the teens, who are responsive, forthcoming, and honest. DiFeliciantonio believes the use of video and the small crew was instrumental in helping form the bond between subjects and filmmakers. "The size of the crew definitely affects the dynamic," she said. "It was just Jane and I, and it allowed for an immediacy and intimacy. With a big crew, the director's mind can be somewhere else, and it is distracting. The people you are dealing with can feel it. Filmmaking is kind of like acting - you have to be present in the moment."

The Texas Documentary tour will present Girls Like Us on Wednesday, February 11 at the Alamo Drafthouse. There will be two screenings, with doors opening at 6:30 and 9pm. Admission is $5 for the general public; $3.50 for Austin Film Society members and UT students. Jane Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio will be on hand to introduce the film and conduct a Q&A session afterwards. The Texas Documentary Tour is a co-presentation of the Austin Film Society, the University of Texas RTF Dept., The Austin Chronicle, and SXSW Film.

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