Running time: 16m 16s
Source film: 16mm; color; sound
Director: Richard Wells
Production: Gary Schlosser; Peter Schniztler; University of California, Los Angeles – Extension Media Center; National Institute of Mental Health
Photography/Camera: Robert Grant
Editor: Andrew Stein
The Social Seminar was a program sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and developed by the National Institute of Mental Health in the early 1970s that sought to provide a learning environment in which participants identified and established values and improved communication skills while participating in structured activities. From a cursory review of the resource manual provided to seminar facilitators (see: Related), it appears that much of the program was oriented around one of 19 short documentary films that were used as learning tools. They depicted all sorts of lives, from the acid-dropping California hippie to the television news reporter. At least six of the films were executive produced by Oscar-nominated short subject documentary filmmaker Gary Schlosser, so they had competent editing and camera-work that provided a coherent portrait of each film’s subject. Despite the program’s central aim of the prevention of drug abuse, not all of the films were strictly about drug consumption. 1971’s Teddy was one such film, focusing on a high school student in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
It begins with students from Jefferson High School responding to an off-camera interviewer’s question about their future ambitions. One student who enjoys math intends to enter the police academy; another, with a slight smirk, says he wants to become a nurse. One student, however, doesn’t feel that Jefferson prepares its graduates adequately for life after school and worse, she says that a lot of students are simply pushed through the school system. When we first meet Teddy, he’s in a tightly packed room participating in what could either be a religious service or a gospel rehearsal. As we watch, he narrates softly that he remembers watching TV from an early age and seeing a consistent pattern of white men using guns and violence to “win over things” — be it people, territory, or situations — and feeling it was the predominant way he saw things being accomplished. It is this perception that frames much of the rest of the film.
We rarely see Teddy alone. At home, we see him in his bedroom talking to his teenaged brother, Freddie, and other friends. In his kitchen, he joins some older men who gather for games and political chatter. As a burgeoning activist — he was suspended from one school for protesting outdated textbooks — he is very involved with his community and frequently meets with both peers and adults (i.e. teachers) to discuss issues around curriculum and teacher-student dynamics. The topic of drug use comes up exactly once and only briefly; Teddy doesn’t know many friends who do reds (common downer) but knows plenty who spend their days smoking weed. He himself doesn’t actively partake because he dislikes the feeling of not being in control and not thinking straight. Having attended Black Panthers meetings and read at least part of Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” (i.e. Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung), Teddy is still very much in the process of finding himself politically and thinking critically about different belief systems. He regards true revolutionaries as those who seek change through peaceful means but will use violence if necessary, while also maintaining a non-interventionist perspective when it comes to matters like the Vietnam War (a topic he has hotly contested with his own older Marine brother).
Viewers will also find that several of the topics Teddy and his peers raise still resonate more than 40 year later, specifically: failing inner city schools, military interventionism, and the erosion of civil liberties. Police are regarded as aggressive bullies and the film employs archival footage of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 1969 raid on the Black Panthers headquarters. Teddy recalls being a bystander there among two or three hundred other people, where police told them their presence constituted an “unlawful assembly” before they attempted to disperse the crowd through violent means. His conclusion in light of this event and others like it is one of resignation, saying “we can’t use the gun, because if we pick up a .45 you’ll pick up a rifle and if we pick up a rifle, you’re gonna use a tank.”
A few years back, I helped plan a film and video screening event with the Panopticon student group at Simmons College’s School of Library and Information Science. We exclusively screened content from Archive.org’s Prelinger Archives and Ephemeral VHS collections, and Teddy was one of my most preferred items as we narrowed down the list of selections. With its cinéma vérité style and first-person narration, it really stood apart from our other clips of occupational overviews and off-beat fitness products, and the students in attendance that night found it easier to connect to than other material that felt either dated or overly manufactured. A lot of that accessibility also comes from the issues with which Teddy was grappling: self-identification, societal pressures, and conflicting belief systems among them.
There are some lighter moments in the film, such as a boisterous family friend who interweaves his political thoughts with crowd-pleasing jokes (in regards to a black Naval admiral, he guesses, “he’s going to command three ships…up in Alaska. He’s going to make sure the Russians don’t steal all the tuna.”) We also see footage of Freddie’s R&B group singing a rendition of The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next to You,” complete with synchronized dance moves and slightly awkward falsetto.
While it’s very much a product of its time — you’ll see plenty of 70s fashion and hairstyles, after all — this is a film with very wide appeal and one that functions well as either a learning tool (as the Social Seminar’s creators likely intended) or as a snapshot of a unique and politically charged point in American history.
- When I Was Your Age…: The Social Seminar (Tom Keiser, Network Awesome)
- The Social Seminar: Drugs, Education and Society. A Resource Manual for the Group Facilitator (Description of ‘Teddy’ on page 47 of full text PDF)
- Teddy [motion picture] / National Institutes of Mental Health (UCLA Library Catalog Holdings Information)