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Last Chance High

This Documentary on Mental Illness Gives a Platform to Youth in Crisis

Filmmakers Craig and Brent Renaud are telling the stories of disadvantaged young people and raising mental health awareness.

by Sean Hutchinson
Jul 11 2017, 8:13pm

Photo by Brad Neathery Neathery via Unsplash

Next season of Last Chance High premiers Tuesday, August 8 on VICELAND.

Last Chance High is an 8-part documentary series adapted from the Peabody Award-winning Vice News web series about the students at Moses Montefiore Academy, a school for the most troubled youth on Chicago's tumultuous West Side. For the kids here -- many of whom have been expelled from other schools and have been diagnosed with behavioral and emotional disorders -- Montefiore is a last best chance at turning life around.

In their critically acclaimed series Last Chance High (next season of the show is set to premiere August 8 on VICELAND), filmmaker Craig Renaud and his brother Brent chronicled Moses Montefiore Academy, the school for Chicago's most at-risk youth. It's one of the only places in the city for disenfranchised kids to end up after being kicked out of basically every other school at their disposal. Each episode takes viewers into the classrooms and homes of the embattled kids and the school's staff, offering intimate portraits of lives on the brink.

The Renaud brothers have now returned with their film Shelter, a new documentary that explores the similarly volatile lives of homeless youth in New Orleans.

VICE Impact talked to Craig Renaud about his experiences on both projects, and the role of the filmmaker to tell such stories.

VICE Impact: As a documentarian, what drew you to want to tell the story of Shelter after working on Last Chance High?

Craig Renaud: I think the main thing is the "Last Chance High" it's something that we touched on but we felt like we could go a lot deeper with the issue of mental health with young people.

As a filmmaker, how do you gain trust to tell these intimate, volatile stories? What's your in?

There are layers of getting that kind of access. The initial layer is more of the bureaucratic layer, but, once you're in, especially with teenagers, it's not that easy to get that kind of trust where you completely be inside their lives. The positive about teenagers is they're all used to social media and cameras and all of that, so they're not shy in the sense of putting themselves out there but there is a big trust issue and we are two 40-year-old white guys trying to break through that barrier. I think that for us our approach is really simple and we've never over complicated that approach. We're not pretentious, we're very open and honest about what our intent is and why we are doing it, and we stick to what we are doing.

There is no voiceover, no words on the screen. The subjects just tell their stories. Is that more powerful to get the message across?

Definitely, and we've always been very, kind of old school journalists in the sense of how to quote from the material. [We're] not trying to put our point of view or perspectives in our films. One of the earlier films that we did that we're really known for is called, "Off to War", where we went to Iraq for a year, went and saw the national guard, and you know, had all this amazing access to a unit right at the beginning of the war, and you know, if you've watched that whole series you would never have any idea what our political take on the war was.

We have some characters who were very against it, and other soldiers who were very "gung-ho," and that's just the way we've always liked to be. It's kind of right down the middle in what we strike up in our minds and let the characters speak for themselves, I've always found that to be a lot more powerful, and not have your mind made up about where the stories going to take you either, you know, you have really have to be along for the ride with these guys and just see where it goes, not come in kinda with an idea in your head about the story is that you're telling because so often, it's not really what you're expecting.

Do you think it's imperative for people to see these issues up close and on such a personal level to want to change minds or change their understanding?

I would say that we're not even about trying to change people's minds. It starts with the characters, so we want to channel, you know, rich, deep, narrative type stories about important issues. It's kind of like putting a human face on a big news story is how I would describe it.

For example, we covered the Haiti earthquake and there are hundreds of journalists covering the earthquake so our approach was always, "Okay let's find the characters who really show people", it's more about an experiential thing with the viewers where they get to be in the life of that person and not just see a news report about it. And you know, everybody else was at the general hospital in Haiti, we were characters in their homes and in their houses and living with them in their tents and I just think that the information comes out in a different way.

There are no statistics, there are no experts, there's nothing, some of that gets sprinkled in there but for us, it's really all about the characters and telling their story and then the issues trickle out. It's all there and it's all packaged but our approach really is just exclusively about the characters and their lives, and you know, the other stuff comes with it which it always almost does.

So for example like "Shelter", you know, with mental health, you can go into that facility and just talk to the social workers there but for us it was more interesting to just stick with the Elizabeth who's the main character who, you know, schizophrenia has just set in with her, she's on the streets, she's about to die, and it's really just trying to understand her as a 19-year-old schizophrenic girl who's homeless. And all of the issues kinda come around that but the focus is always the character.

Are there any other kinds of surprising correlations between "Last Chance High" and "Shelter" other than mental health?

Yeah, I think that all these things, like youth, violence, lower income areas and mental health, all these things are packaged up together in a way that nobody really takes them in itself into account. I've noticed just recently about a month ago in New Orleans public school system violence started talking about how to approach disciplining students when they have recently figured out statistically that this crazy high, I don't remember what the percentage was -- it was very high, of students that they feel like have experience trauma.

Same thing in Chicago, I mean it's, you go into these neighborhoods right, and you'll find that it's almost impossible to find any of these kids who have not directly witnessed violence in their neighborhood. Something that never gets talked about with all this stuff is the impact of post-traumatic stress on these kids who are seeing violence either in their homes or in the streets.

It's just such a natural part of their community that nobody ever really links that to behavior issues at school or why kids might start getting in trouble, that sort of thing. "Last Chance High" you have all of that coming to a head. Some of its diagnosable stuff like being bipolar or schizophrenic, but most of it is behavioral issues that I think you could link directly back to trauma and abuse and that sort of stuff.

So that part of it was interesting to us and we touched on it in "Last Chance High," but until you really point it out it's not there, it's not a big theme in the film. When you watch "Shelter" it's all about the mental health. One of the things I was told impressed about Covenant House is it's very much keyed into that. A lot of [the patients] are actively using drugs to self-medicate for the trauma that got them there in the first place, right? So it's this whole tangled web of drug addiction, mental illness and issues that affected their lives mostly because they grew up poor.

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