It was apparent 5 years ago when I was filming “It’s a Girl’s World” (2004) – a documentary about social bullying - that the group of 10-year-old girls I was profiling was sexually aware of boys and their crushes and “dates” were contributing to jealousy and resentment in their relationships. Even their parents were dreading their daughters’ entry into adolescence and the additional pressures on the sex and dating frontiers.

It was suggested to me that taking an unflinching look at teen relationships and attitudes toward sex and power would be a documentary everyone would want to watch. Since then, the decision to make this documentary has been further validated by a major report on school violence in Toronto schools released in January 2008. “The Road to Health” by Julian Falconer and the School Community Safety Advisory Panel reported that sexual harassment was epidemic in high schools across the city with 30% of girls reporting that they’ve been sexually assaulted – anything from unwanted sexually touching to rape. Soon after, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reported very similar findings in their study of sexual harassment and violence in southwestern Ontario schools.

What I have learned is that this damaging behaviour is universal - cutting across country, culture, socio-economic status, race and religion.  As studies on all forms of bullying around the world have concluded, the underlying process is the same – the deliberate misuse of power to make you feel better at someone’s expense. These lessons are often gleaned from the violent popular culture that kids consume indiscriminately and from a lack of self-worth that may stem from difficulties in home life. 

I am keenly aware that many parents have a lot of trepidation about talking to their teens about sexuality – a much more complicated conversation than the “birds and the bees” - and kids sense that this door is closed. Sometimes it’s easier for parents to deliver a lecture and set onerous rules but that approach may invite rebellion. Others look the other way and hope for the best knowing that they survived their own mistakes and regrets. It also may be that their cultural and religious beliefs preclude any discussion with their children about sexual matters. These parental perspectives have not kept up with the times. The world of adolescence has changed dramatically in the last decade with the advancements in personal technology and the most sexually explicit popular culture in history. Kids have access to everything an adult has access to with total freedom to not critically think about it. What I discovered is that kids – given some guidance – can be incredibly smart and insightful about their social world!

I chose the participant groups randomly by geography – in central, east and west Toronto. I did not “cast” the teens. I began to feel strongly that I wanted to give the teens (ranging in age from 13-17) who were prepared to share very intimate and sometimes painful experiences in their actual social and sexual lives an opportunity for meaningful authorship. A few courageous teens took small cameras home and had the dreaded sexual pressures talk with parents or grandparents. A number of excerpts from these remarkably candid conversations can be seen in the feature documentary film.

I also felt that the teens needed a creative outlet to explore the meaning and consequences of their complex social lives. The idea of having three culturally diverse groups of teens create, write, direct, and act in their own short dramatic films on the topic of sexual pressures and allowing the professional camera crew to document their progress was immediately embraced. In this way, it made telling their own real life stories easier and allowed me to document that in a parallel fashion to their own filmmaking. I gave no instructions for the type of fictional story for their short dramatic films. The only parameters I gave each group was that their fictional accounts had to be honest and authentic, not some Hollywood version of teen life.

It’s a Teen’s World is an unprecedented social experiment where teens examine their provocative, fast-paced and hyper-sexualized social world more carefully and thoughtfully. Kids today seem to be simply absorbing the bombardment of sexually explicit, abusive and misogynistic images, language and behaviours into their social scripts. Even those who recognize that much of what they are emulating is sexual violence feel powerless to do anything about it without being labeled a snitch and losing all their friends. What I asked the teens in the documentary to do is to “slo-mo” all of that. Stop, think and consider what this means and if it actually serves them well. Perhaps most revealing is how the kids in each group challenged each other’s assumptions, grappled with contradictions and many of them ultimately changed their perspectives by the end of the filming process. Another legacy of the film is the amazing rap song “Under Pressure”. The lyrics 14-year-old Ryan wrote were inspired by a girl he knew in middle school who learned a tough lesson about sexual promiscuity.

The teens are very motivated to pass on what they have learned to others. Each of the three groups had an opportunity to present their short dramatic films to a YWCA and White Ribbon Campaign conference last fall called “Respect for Being a Boy and the Power of Being a Girl” to a much appreciative audience of high school students across Toronto. They also brought their films to an event sponsored by the Female Eye Film Festival commemorating the 1989 massacre of 14 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

It is my hope that the teens who participated in the documentary continue to be ambassadors for change in their peer groups, schools and communities. 

Lynn Glazier