The documentary The Third Monday in October generated mixed emotions in me, but it pretty much held my interest the whole way, and in the end I clearly liked it.
The film follows the campaigns for student government in four middle schools.
The first thing I have mixed feelings about is the style itself. There is no narration, no context, no commentary, and precious little in the way of supplementary visuals or identifying text or graphics. It’s just clips of the students campaigning, at home, meeting with teachers, hearing the election results, etc. strung together one after another. The filming took place in 2004, so to provide a comparison they purposely shot some scenes with a TV on in the background covering the Bush-Kerry presidential race, but other than that, the only content is clips of these kids running for student government.
I definitely like that better than if they had jazzed it up with a lot of gimmicks, or dulled it down with too much narration. But I think I would have liked some sort of middle ground between that and this bare bones style. Maybe closer to the latter though, as in fact I have to say this style mostly works after all. It kept me interested, and most of it is self-explanatory enough that you really don’t need much if any narration to know what’s going on. So letting the events speak for themselves was a pretty good choice, even if I’m not convinced it was the ideal choice.
I think the film is a bit hampered by limitations on material. Either that or they made some peculiar editing decisions. For instance, some of the student candidates are not interviewed or are interviewed very briefly, so we see them out campaigning and giving speeches and such, but they don’t get the “up close and personal” treatment others do, and I assume that’s because they didn’t agree to interviews or something happened to make their interviews unusable. Also, an obvious example is one of the students is nearly kicked off the ballot for allegedly violating the rules in her formal speech for the school assembly, yet she’s one of the small minority of candidates of whom we see no clips from their speeches.
I was genuinely uncomfortable early in the film. I hated that environment when I was that age, and watching this brought back negative emotions.
Though I tend to like kids and connect better with them than most adults do, this may be the age of childhood that I feel least positive about. Certainly I wanted nothing to do with the vast majority of my peers when I was that age myself, and this film brought some of those emotions back too, reminding me what can be so annoying about middle schoolers.
Younger kids are cute and I really don’t hold them up to any standards that they could fall short of, so they don’t disappoint me. And adults (well, most—OK, a few) are rational beings that you can interact with on that level, but 13 and 14 year olds are more apt to hit me negatively on a visceral level.
When they’re reduced to self-conscious giggles, they’re too old for it to be cute any more—I’m just embarrassed for them. And when they express opinions assertively or act cool or make jokes, it comes across as empty playacting, just poor imitations of the behavior of older people that they don’t understand.
And a lot of their worst traits aren’t as evident in a film like this—the kind of kids who run for student council, especially when they know they’re on camera, aren’t likely to behave as viciously and stupidly and irresponsibly as the typical middle schooler. So what we’re seeing is arguably that age group at its best, which is scary.
But over time, my attitude softened a bit. I cringed less often as I got more used to them and the level at which they operate. It never wore off completely, but I didn’t dislike the students (the candidates and the others) as much at the end of the movie as I did early.
One thing I did sustain a real negative reaction to though is the authority figures and rules. That brought up in me how much I hate being controlled, having someone tell me how I can express myself and such. And I hated it then too. I understand the arguments about how minors can’t be granted the same rights and all that, but boy, so many times I wanted one of these kids to tell these people to fuck off.
At at least some of the schools, all banners, buttons, T-shirts, etc. had to be pre-approved. All speeches had to be submitted in advance and pre-approved. And the approval wasn’t a rubber stamp kind of thing either; they were nit picky about every little thing.
At one school, your speech couldn’t refer negatively to your opponents, couldn’t make a negative comparison with previous years’ student government, and couldn’t make campaign promises, among other things. Heck, what’s left? Most of the students just did jokes, but even that was dubious because the censors wouldn’t allow anything that could in the slightest way, maybe, somehow, be construed as offensive to someone. Evidently what is expected and required is utterly empty positive rhetoric—“I love my school, together we can make our school the best, let’s build a great future for our school,” etc.
One poor kid actually gets kicked off the ballot the day before the election due to a transgression in his speech. (In addition to the one that almost gets kicked off that I mentioned above.) And it’s ludicrous. His crime? In one of his jokes, he makes a reference to “the crossing guard” that could be considered disparaging—at most very very mildly—to some evidently unpopular lady crossing guard. So in the pre-approval stage, one teacher says something like “I really wouldn’t want you to offend Mrs. So-and-so,” and another teacher signs off on the joke as long as he changes “the crossing guard” to “a crossing guard,” as this supposedly makes it more general rather than sounding like it’s referring specifically to her.
So he makes the change and delivers the speech that way, and then gets called into the office. It seems unanimity is required from the teachers for pre-approval, and he should have known that the one teacher’s remarks about not wanting to offend that woman meant he was telling him to remove the joke. Plus, while he did say “a” instead of “the,” he put some sort of subtle emphasis on the word (that only teachers can hear apparently) that made it functionally equivalent to “the” after all. So he’s out. Jesus.
Another thought I had watching this is, do people really take any of this seriously? I always thought of student government elections as well below one of those local political races where 11% or whatever of people bother to vote. I think they had these things when I was in school, but I would have had no idea who held these offices, and my impression is almost no one else I went to school with would have either. I sure don’t remember ever seeing posters or seeing candidates out shaking hands and all that. Are there schools where people are actually aware of this stuff and care?
Because they don’t actually do anything if they win, do they? The candidates are complaining about the quality of the textbooks and the lunches and such, but is that stuff really in the job description of a 13 year old student government president? Is he or she the one who’ll call the shots on what textbooks to order for the school?
I would assume the office is 99% ceremonial. Which means that the value of the whole process, if there is any, is practice. They’re politicking and making speeches and such for something make-believe, in order to develop certain skills they might be able to use in the future in situations that are real.
I did find myself liking the movie more as I got a better feel for the candidates as individuals, and of course I developed my favorites and the icky ones to root against. (Even though it’s all make-believe, almost all of them took very seriously their winning and losing, so what the hell.) I had a little trouble here and there keeping straight who was who, and who was running at which school (all four schools’ races run parallel), but mostly I could keep track.
They are quite a motley bunch (though a lot of this can be manipulated with the editing). There’s the kind of tongue-tied, earnest Filipino immigrant. The cheerleading squad rivals. The Marin County token Bush-supporting Republican. The guy who eventually got kicked out for his utterly innocuous wrongdoing (and who’s a foot or more taller than any other student, and many of the teachers, by the way). The poised, mostly fluff, comely blonde who opposes social programs because “how will poor people ever learn if we just give them everything?” and for whom various male students admit they’re voting because she’s “hot.”
There’s one that I liked, or really I liked the mom. Urban, African American mom, no sign of a dad in the picture, and she routinely asks questions of her children and stays on top of them to learn. “How many Supreme Court justices are there?” she’ll ask at random in the middle of the evening, “You don’t know? I need you to look that up for me on the Internet. What if some game show called and that was the million dollar question? And while you’re online, you should also find out who the only Black justice is, and whether they’re elected or appointed by someone, and how long their terms are.” I just thought she did it in a very cool way, as someone who’s really committed to education. And her kids didn’t seem to resent it or anything; they seemed used to conversing about this kind of thing at home with their mother.
One candidate is clearly the most impressive of all. I kept feeling like I should dislike him, but he just wouldn’t provide a suitable opening to do so. He speaks very confidently and is able to articulate and defend his opinions quite well, so it doesn’t come across like the others, who when they do try to speak seriously are mostly just parroting platitudes from their parents or Fox “News” or whatever, basically playacting that they have opinions. At times I had the impression he was taking himself and this race way too seriously, but then he’d step back and show an ability to put it in perspective. I finally just had to concede he’s many years ahead of most of his peers in terms of intellect, knowledge, and maturity, rather than just some obnoxious guy trying to come across as a know-it-all.
There is just as clearly a least impressive candidate. That’s the girl who almost gets kicked off the ballot for the speech that isn’t shown. She just giggles and looks shy, and never articulates any reason she’s even in the race. (I’m guessing parental pressure, but who knows?) At the speech “rehearsal,” she shows up without a speech, claims she has one but just didn’t get around to putting it in writing, goes up to the podium and tries to bluff by ad libbing one on the spot, and can’t come up with anything. I don’t recall she puts much if any effort into the sorts of politicking most of the others do—designing and putting up posters, recruiting students to wear your T-shirts, etc. She seems indifferent to the whole thing. The teacher advisor to the process even—very tactfully—expresses concern that she doesn’t know why she’s even running.
Of course the genius guy loses his race, and the zero girl wins hers. Which is another interesting thing about these elections: In a lot of ways they’re as bad as adult elections in picking the best candidates. As one student comically comments early in the film, the outcome is determined “Half by how popular you are, and the other twenty-five percent by how funny you are in your speech.” I don’t know what percentage of students vote (it’s hard to imagine it’s many, unless it’s a Soviet-style mandatory election, which would be par for the course), but probably almost none of them know or care where the candidates stand on the “issues” (if there are any, which I’m still doubtful of).
Anyway, The Third Monday in October isn’t anything great, but to me it was quite interesting. I recommend it.