Cover Story

Mark your calendar for Tuesday, Oct. 2, the day that PBS will premiere "5 Girls," a documentary that follows the lives of five diverse adolescent girls for two years.

Produced by Kartemquin Educational Films--the production company behind the much-acclaimed "Hoop Dreams"--the film takes an insightful, positive look at the lives of teen-age girls and their relationships with friends and family.

"There's something of a celebration about this film," says APA President Norine G. Johnson, PhD. "It celebrates the girls' strengths and ability to navigate such a confusing time of life."

Filmmaker Maria Finitzo enlisted the help of APA's Task Force on Adolescent Girls, co-chaired by Johnson and Karen Zager, PhD, and APA's Office of Public Communications to shape the documentary's direction. Through their collaboration, "5 Girls" showcases successful, if not perfect, girls embroiled in their own unique challenges, instead of the stereotyped troubles of adolescence.

"When you watch these girls struggling and you hear how thoughtful they are--and how adaptable and resilient--it's really miraculous," comments Zager.

"5 Girls" follows Haibinh, Corrie, Aisha, Amber and Toby (see related article) for two years as they attend dances, date boys and girls, quarrel with parents, participate in school sports and simply spend time with their friends. In the process, the film shows that the ups and downs of adolescent girls' experiences are normal parts of growing up, says Zager.

"I'd like other girls to realize that they are more than how they are portrayed in the traditional media," says Finitzo.

"These girls are attractive without being too thin," Johnson explains. "They're fun-loving without putting themselves in danger. They think about life and their friends and boys without sounding goofy. The film gives girls an opportunity to see real girls doing real things."

Finitzo's documentary holds lessons for parents as well: "What comes through in this film is that girls want to stay connected to their parents," says Johnson. "I hope parents will learn that communication and staying involved with your teen is important. You don't have to be perfect parents, but it's important to hang in there."

'Extraordinary' girls

Well before she began filming "5 Girls," Finitzo called Zager seeking advice on framing the story around the issues young girls face.

"We helped them craft a positive message," explains Zager, "not only on the problems girls face, but on the strengths and resiliency they have."

The task force assisted Finitzo in selecting the girls who would take part in the film. It was important to choose girls who could not only withstand the rigors of cameras following them, but also ones who would reflect the diversity of American adolescent girls, racially, economically and sexually.

"We gave five girls an opportunity to show how they were extraordinary," Finitzo says. "But if you gave that opportunity to five other girls, you would find out that they were extraordinary as well."

She also ensured that her film displays the many ways that girls express their strengths and capabilities. That's why you'll see girls playing basketball, expressing concern about human rights and politics, checking the car's oil, having close relationships with their parents, living on their own and dealing with cultural differences.

Showcasing the film

"5 Girls" is one of 12 documentaries selected by PBS's P.O.V.--"Point of View"--showcase, which highlights independent nonfiction films. P.O.V. considered about 600 works last year, and out of that chose 12 to present on PBS, explains Cara Mertes, executive producer for P.O.V. and its parent group, American Documentary, both part of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

"We chose to air '5 Girls' because this topic is very underrepresented and it's extremely important," says Mertes. "Teen-agers are very stereotyped in the media, and '5 Girls' goes beyond stereotypes. It's an impeccably made film."

P.O.V. will launch a national publicity campaign this month to promote the premiere broadcast in concert with the Television Race Initiative, a sister-division of P.O.V. that builds public awareness of cultural issues around such films.

"This is an exciting, new way for APA to piggyback onto a prestigious broadcast to get parents and kids talking," says Rhea K. Farberman, APA's executive director of public and member communications.

Part of the campaign includes several screening events throughout September and October, including one on Sept. 30 in Boston, sponsored by the Boston Girls' Coalition and PBS television station WGBH. About 250 people are expected to attend the session, which will feature a 30-minute cut of the documentary followed by a town hall conversation about the film and adolescent girls. Johnson will serve as moderator.

In addition, APA is working with Finitzo, Kartemquin Films and P.O.V. to develop a "5 Girls" Web site, scheduled to go live this month on P.O.V.'s Web site (

"We're interested in this site being an intergenerational conversation so that parents and teen-agers can go to it and have things they can do together," says Mertes. "It allows a way to talk about issues that are sometimes difficult to talk about--issues that everybody deals with when growing up."

APA has also developed a brochure for parents, Staying Connected: Raising Adolescent Girls, which will serve as the basis of content for the "5 Girls" Web site and answer questions about guiding girls through adolescence. After the film is broadcast, information will air on how viewers can obtain the brochure; it will also be available by contacting the APA Office of Public Communi- cations.

"One of my hopes is that this film will serve as a change agent, as a tipping point, that will make people see adolescent girls differently," says Johnson. "These are young women, not just full of woe and angst, but of beauty and joy."

Further Reading

"5 Girls" airs Tuesday, Oct. 2 (check local listings for time). For more information, including the brochure about adolescent girls, contact APA's Office of Public Communications at (202) 336-5700; e-mail: Public Affairs. Learn more about Kartemquin Films at and "5 Girls" at