`Guerrilla Video' Takes Viewers

MICHAEL POORBEAR - age 17, part native American, part Mexican - is speaking urgently and with an untutored eloquence about his life. It is during a college interview at his Denver high school. The interviewer stares impassively from behind his glasses, a cipher who will render judgment when the time comes.

Afterward, Michael says insightfully, ``These interviewers don't see kids that can be molded into something. They simply react to first impressions.''

The TV show recording this scene doesn't make that mistake. It not only sees teenagers, it captures their lives by skillfully tuning in to the rhythm of their days and nights.

Called ``The Ride,'' the program is the premiere episode of an eight-part series airing on many public TV stations around the country during the week of Oct. 29 (check local listings). The unusual format lets a group of young video producers - ``travelers,'' as they're called on the show - make their way across the country to visit a selected group of teenagers.

The filmmakers record their lives at home, school, and just hanging out. The subjects of the film are called (a bit preciously, perhaps) ``guides,'' because they guide the filmmakers, often intimately, into their world.

The result is a stream of impressionistic scenes that are full of oblique angles and aggressively cinematic film-school effects. ``Guerrilla video'' is how someone on the show describes the approach. It is radically outspoken, contains intimate scenes and four-letter words not often encountered on national TV, and has a feel entirely different from most TV fare.

This may seem out of the ordinary for national TV - even for public TV - and that's exactly the idea. The series is produced by the Independent Television Service, an agency created by Congress in 1989 to promote public TV programming ``that involves creative risks and that addresses the needs of unserved and underserved audiences, particularly children and minorities.''

If you thought that's what public TV itself was supposed to do, remember that public TV's somewhat predictable program choices have been fiercely accused of both liberal and conservative sameness. Public TV may offer an alternative to commercial TV, but shows like ``The Ride'' are an alternative within public TV. The teens in these episodes include minority youths and explore their experience with racism, drugs, gangs and violence, eating disorders, and other issues not treated as unguardedly on mainstream TV as they are here.

The focus is sometimes on the process of filming rather than on the subjects, making the program a show about a show. In Episode One, for instance, as we join the travelers on the road, samples of their audition tapes are mixed in.

The journeys themselves are an obvious metaphor for trips through the teen experience. The feeling is MTVish, with mercurial, fragmented imagery that turns the screen into a mixing-bowl of effects. The program's searching tone, the quick takes and conversations, capture by turns the hopeful, anguished, striving nature of the individual personalities. At certain points the approach becomes too absorbed with stylistic verve at the expense of meaning.

Yet the series has a strikingly different sensibility from standard TV, in spite of its sometimes offensive content. It is a new kind of report on teens in America, not always fully realized and distractingly self-conscious at times, but serving as a reminder of how much creative territory remains to be explored in the documentary-TV field.

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