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Reality Check.

Forget Survivor 3, Lost, and The Amazing Race. The place to go for the real reality shows this fall is public television. October will bring the premiere of two documentaries that look at the lives of young people without the hype.

Produced for PBS'S POV (Point of View) series, "5 Girls" examines the lives of five Chicago-area teenagers from diverse backgrounds. (The show airs October 2 at 9:00 P.M. Eastern time.)

Haibinh, fifteen, emigrated to the United States from Vietnam when she was ten. Now, as an academically advanced high school sophomore, she tries to balance her desire to fit into American society with her need to remain connected to her native traditions.

"Sometimes I think I have dual personalities," she says. "I like being both ways, though. I don't want to give up one or the other."

Aisha, sixteen, is dealing with her parents' acrimonious divorce, as well as the demands of her hypercritical and protective father. "It's hard when your parents don't really even want to talk to each other," she says tearfully.

Toby, who at thirteen is the youngest of the five, tries to distinguish herself from the weighty personalities of her parents, both of whom are doctors.

Amber, fifteen, deals with an anger-filled relationship with her mother and a childhood scarred by violence. "People just don't care about you at all," she says emphatically. "I had to find out the hard way. Nobody cares about you but yourself."

Corrie, seventeen, from Chicago's affluent North Shore, is alienated from her father and many of her classmates because of her bisexuality and her political views. "My peers are like, `Oh, she's so weird. She thinks about politics. That's so strange,'" Corrie says with a wry smile. "I find that life gets meaningless if you're just concerned about what your hair looks like and if you're going to the right party Saturday night."

The young women of "5 Girls" don't seem that different from those of earlier generations. We see the seemingly age-old practice of fussing over hair, clothes, and makeup before homecoming and other high school dances. There is concern about dating, body image, and school achievement. At times, only the piercing, hairstyles, and shoes remind us that these are women growing up in the "post-feminist" millennium.

Have things changed that little for teenage girls? What woman wouldn't connect with Aisha's feelings of trying to respect her father's wishes while also attempting to assert her own personality? Who wouldn't understand Toby's frustration when a book she's interested in is deemed "too easy" by her mother?

Still, the mood of "5 Girls" is distinctly upbeat. "Often when you see movies about young girls, you see how they are failing," says director/co-producer Maria Finitzo in the documentary's press release. "But this is a film about five girls who face the challenges of adolescence with strength and resilience."

While that is all well and good, there's a danger that this admirable film might minimize the harsher realities that many other girls face. Sometimes strength and resilience are no match for poverty, abuse, and the myriad other circumstances that can weigh down a person. A rosy picture may be empowering, but it also may be depoliticizing if it gives the impression that solutions are only up to the individual.

At the other end of the documenary film spectrum are the children at the center of "When the Bough Breaks," a thought-provoking and eye-opening account of how kids are affected when their mothers are incarcerated. (It will air nationally in October.) As the film, presented by Independent Television Service, tells us, a quarter of a million children wait for their mothers to come home from prison. Half of those children never get to visit while their mothers are away. Even more shocking is the fact that when a mother is arrested there is no specific public policy or routine process to coordinate what will happen to the children. We'll be paying for that deficit in our future: Children with inmate mothers are about six times more likely to end up behind bars than their peers, the film tells us.

The three Missouri families at the center of the film are, like the families featured in "5 Girls," from diverse backgrounds.

Missy and Laurie have to move in with their grandparents after their mother is arrested for writing fake prescriptions. "Where else were they going to go?" asks the grandmother, who, like many of the adults in the film, remains nameless.

"It's hard on me," says her husband. "It's hard on their grandmother. It's hard on a lot of people. You think you send one person to jail. Unh-uh. It affects a lot of people. It could be worse, I guess. If I don't have a bad heart attack, I can probably take care of these kids another year."

Roosevelt Jr. is a handsome and even-keeled African American teenager whose mother has been in jail most of his life. "His mom's been there. His father's been there. But it's not a hereditary thing," explains Little Roosevelt's stepmother. "You don't inherit incarceration."

Roosevelt's mom is serving a fifteen-year sentence for, as she puts it, "stealing a suit from Neiman Marcus."

Even at his young age, Roosevelt understands the effects of extended jail time. "If they put you in for a long time, when you get out, you won't be used to the world and you'll want to do something to get back in because you forgot how to cope with life outside of prison," he says.

John, Angie, Tanya, and Baby James are four of seven children. Their mom is an addict. "I started having kids when I was sixteen," she says. Later, she adds, "I haven't raised one of them."

"My mom wasn't taking care of us right," Angie explains matter of factly, "'cause we didn't have no food, and she was on drugs and stuff like that."

Some of the film's most emotionally charged moments occur when Angie and other family members first meet Baby James, who was born in prison and put immediately into foster care. The complications of James's story are told with the added perspective of his loving foster mom.

"I see myself as his mother," she says. "I didn't give birth to him, but I've had him, it's like, since birth. It's different when you get foster babies than when you get foster kids because the kids, they know their mothers and they know their other families, `but a baby doesn't. A baby just knows what he lives." Still, even she acknowledges that "everybody deserves to know their family. There's nothing like a grandmother."

"When the Bough Breaks" doesn't argue that women shouldn't be punished for the crimes they commit, but it exposes the inequity of the criminal justice system. As Little Roosevelt's mother explains: "[Roosevelt's father] did seventeen years total for two murders. I'm doing a fifteen-year sentence for stealing one outfit."

Missy and Laurie's mom says, "I would like to see them stop locking these women up for nonviolent offenses. Since I've come in July '97, I've seen a prison built, and I've seen them fill it with females. They're coming in every day. Every day I see them, and they're getting younger. Then you see the mothers and daughters walking around together. That's not right. Something's wrong with that picture."

She's on to something: 80 percent of all female inmates are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses. And two out of three women in prison are mothers of young children, according to the film.

While "5 Girls" is a positive look at the rituals of growing up female, "When the Bough Breaks" is a stone-cold reality check. It hits hard, showing how our prison-industrial complex affects the youngest among us.

"I believe there is a power in making television programs," says Jill Evans Petzall, producer of"When the Bough Breaks." "And I try to use that power to present social problems that challenge our moral imaginations."

Boot Camp and Big Brother be gone!

Andrea Lewis is a San Francisco-based writer and co-host of the "Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, California.
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Title Annotation:'Point of View: 5 Girls'
Author:Lewis, Andrea
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Previous Article:Camryn Manheim.
Next Article:(Fried Nerves:) Sounds.

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