Al Jazeera premieres documentary on youth

Film highlights struggles with poverty, violence and teen pregnancies.

Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera
Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera


By Mary Strope

The Guardsman

Maurice, 18, lives on the west side of Chicago, in an area so filled with gun violence that its inhabitants refer to it as “Chi-raq.”

Christina, of rural, poverty-stricken Barbourville, Ky., considers herself lucky. In her town, the 17-year-old knows people whose homes have dirt floors and no running water.

Hanoy dreams of escaping his New Jersey home to attend college in San Francisco. As an out gay teen, he says his father sees him as “the shame of the family.”

The diverse group of teenagers in Al Jazeera America’s new documentary TV series “Edge of 18” come from different backgrounds. But as they face independence, they all have one thing in common – intense, escalating pressure.

In a world of mounting student debt and increasing cost of living, college admissions are more competitive than ever, and the availability and diversity of jobs has dwindled. For those profiled, senior year is not a time of happy-go-lucky youth, goofy teenage fun and carefree days. Instead, they must confront the harsh reality of impending adulthood.

“I’m not going to let Chicago break me,” Maurice says at the start of filming.

Producer Alex Gibney, director Alexandra Pelosi and director/editor Sam Pollard invited a group of high school seniors to New York for a crash-course in documentary filmmaking. The teens returned to their hometowns to detail the second half of their senior years, and the six-part series is the result.

Maurice’s mother put herself through nursing school as a young single parent, and urges her son to go to college.

But for the high school student, the constant murders of young black men like himself are an everyday reality. After the death of a friend, he has trouble finding hope in the future and the motivation to continue his education.

Christina lives in an area some may consider a world away from a big city like Chicago. Yet drug addiction, directionless friends, go-nowhere jobs and blighted landscapes dotted with abandoned buildings make up both of their environments.

She plans to go to college despite a pregnancy that interrupted her senior year. Christina estimates 80 percent of female students in her school, where abstinence-only sex education is the norm, become pregnant.

Hanoy longs for acceptance from his religious, Dominican-born father. He teaches tolerance workshops in school, and questions his gender on camera, but knows opening up to his family comes with its own set of risks.

The 15 profiled students apply to colleges, consider futures in the ministry, experience bullying and body-image issues, and paint a revealing portrait of the American education system. Those who wish to succeed must be self-motivated. But for those who falter, there is often little support in place.

“Edge of Eighteen” airs on Al Jazeera America TV on Sundays at 6 p.m.

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