FILM: Outlaw Women
Director brings troubling story to CSUMB.
Thursday, April 7, 2005
Early in the film Girl Trouble, a 74-minute documentary that follows the tribulations of three girls in the juvenile justice system, there is a scene where social worker Lateefah Simon sums up the government’s approach towards rehabilitating young people who are leaning towards a life of crime.
“You need to ask what you want from the system,” she says to Shangra, a sweet-natured 16-year-old who sells drugs to support her homeless mother. “You can’t play like the system is going to take care of you. It’s going to knock you up.”
Throughout Girl Trouble, the film shows how Shangra, Stephanie, an angry redhead who wears her hair in pigtails, and Sheila, a stocky drug dealer, deal with a system that offers them almost no assistance. Over the course of four years, the young women battle to learn the inner workings of the complicated judicial system in which they are entangled, to fight off abusive family members, and to placate the considerable demons running rampant in their own minds.
The only person seen giving any real help to the three women—besides their legal teams—is Simon, who operates a peer-run group for girls called the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco. Simon, who has survived the same situations that the young women are having to face, offers Shangra, Stephanie and Sheila—and others that don’t appear in the film—advice, employment and self-esteem.
In an email exchange from her native Hungary, Lidia Szajko, who made the film with fellow filmmaker Lexi Leban, says she discovered the subjects of Girl Trouble through the Center for Young Women’s Development.
“We had a relationship as volunteers with the organization at the heart of the film, the Center for Young Women’s Development,” Szajko says. “In 1988 they asked us to make a promotional video about their work in order to help them raise funds for the organization. In the process of making the tape, we realized there were important issues the young women were struggling with in their lives and work which were not receiving attention in the mainstream media.”
Szajko says that initially the filmmakers were trying to record the lives of 12 young women from the center. Eventually, Szajko and Leban decided to change their strategy by focusing on only three girls.
“We began filming about a dozen young women, the whole group of new hires at the CYWD, at the time we began to film,” Szajko says. “Over the next year, some of them left the center and the project, and then we reached a point in the filming where we realized that we had to narrow our focus to be able to achieve greater depth. We chose these three women because we felt that between them they represented the greatest cross-section of experiences and issues that young women in the system were facing.”
By following just Shangra, Stephanie and Sheila, the film allows the viewer to have a strong emotional bond with each subject. While the young women grapple with everything from drug abuse to being abused—one powerful scene shows Stephanie telling the camera that “nobody is going to walk over me” while she sports a black eye caused by her boyfriend—it is impossible to hold back from actively rooting for each individual.
The filmmakers also do a good job of showing that each of their subjects did not simply choose this path, but that their early lives almost dictated that this is where they would end up as teenagers. Various scenes throughout the film support a quote flashed near the end of the film that says 90 percent of girls in the juvenile justice system report physical or sexual abuse.
Even though footage from the filmmakers’ third year of filming hints at a bleak ending to the documentary, Girl Trouble ends on a relatively hopeful note. In one of the film’s final scenes, Stephanie, who shows that she has lost a lot of the pent-up anger she exhibited at the start of the movie, says that she feels like she was made to compete in the corporate world.
Despite the almost happy ending, Szajko says that the young women’s struggles are far from over.
“One of the lessons we hope the film communicates is that success is relative and subjective despite cultural constructions that attempt to define universal measures of success and failure,” she says. “There were many difficult times for each of the young women that we see in the film, and it is a testament to their tenacity and their desire to change that prevails through their hardships and the more fortunate turns of events. The film concludes at a particular moment in time in each of their lives and freezes it, but they are hardly happy endings. Happy endings belong to a concept that a story has an ending. These are lives in progress, and each of these young women continues to face challenges and confront hardships.”
Girl Trouble will be shown at the Black Box Cabaret on 4th Avenue (near 3rd street), CSUMB, Seaside, Wednesday at 7:30pm. Following the screening, filmmaker Lidia Szajko will be on hand to talk about the documentary and answer questions from the audience. Free. 582-3750.