In high school, Michael Lucid was an artsy, friendly kid who floated around from one campus clique to the next. “I was more approachable and kids felt comfortable talking to me,” he says of his time at Santa Monica's Crossroads School, where he graduated in 1996.
Because Lucid was likeable and trustworthy, his teenage peers granted him the kind of insider access into their lives that most filmmakers only dream about capturing on film. Filmmakers like Larry Clark (Kids, Wassup Rockers), Catherine Hardwicke (Lords of Dogtown, Thirteen) and Penelope Spheeris (Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia) all launched their careers by making films that depicted the harsh realities of American teenagers' lives, but Lucid had an advantage over all of these filmmakers: he was himself a high schooler when he shot his gritty, painfully intimate documentary Dirty Girls, which has now become an instant cult sensation ever since it was uploaded to Youtube this month.
Perhaps you've seen the 17-minute film in the roughly two weeks since it's resurfaced on the Internet, 17 years after it was initially shot by a 17-year-old during the course of just two school days. Maybe you've seen the still frame of two messy-haired young girls being interviewed in a high school auditorium — an image that's become ubiquitous after having been reblogged thousands of times by fans on Tumblr.
Lucid's short documentary starts out with the following text: “In Spring of 1996, my senior year of high school, I documented a group of 8th grade girls who were notorious for their crass behavior and allegedly bad hygiene….” The eighth grade girls he's referring to are the film's eponymous dirty girls, a clique of feminist riot grrrls led by sisters Amber and Harper, who became campus legends when they put on a punk rock show at the school's beginning-of-year “alley party” and smeared lipstick all over their faces. Lucid remembers the performance being provocative and angry, so much so that it sparked an ongoing flurry of gossip — and the coining of the term “dirty girls” — that continued throughout the school year of '96.
Lucid was in an after-school program called L.A. Links, where Wendy Clarke, the daughter of radical, 1960s, Oscar-nominated documentarian Shirley Clarke, suggested he document the girls. His footage eventually became the basis for an hour-long documentary he shot on an 8mm camera and edited using two VCRS. He later screened it for the whole school at the end of his senior year.
“I did get to speak with kids from every major identifiable clique on campus, from the jocks to the punky kids,” he tells us over the phone. “Everyone got to put in their two cents about the dirty girls. So I had that kind of total access.”
Fast-forward a few years to 2000. Lucid was enrolled in a documentary class at NYU, where he was in production on an entirely different film about amputees and phantom limbs. When he off-handedly mentioned that he had this documentary of the dirty girls from his high school years, it immediately piqued the interest of his instructor, a documentary filmmaker named Judith Helfand, who encouraged him to re-cut the footage. So he shelved the amputee footage and started editing Dirty Girls, which he eventually screened at the New York Underground Film Festival and a handful of gay film festivals around the country.
“I did a bit of traveling with the short and I put it in a box and moved on with my life,” Lucid tells us. But recently he was contacted by Dirty Looks, a New York-based queer film festival whose organizers had heard of the film and wanted to program it in a riot grrrl-themed segment of the festival in April.
“The programmer asked me if I could upload it to YouTube so he could look at the short,” said Lucid. Suddenly and almost inadvertently, the video he shot 17 years ago an assignment for an after-school program was circulating all over Tumbr and Facebook.
That Dirty Girls is Lucid's biggest Internet success is ironic, considering his day job writing, performing and uploading web videos for World of Wonder, the production company behind shows like RuPaul's Drag Race and features like The Eyes of Tammy Faye and Party Monster. And, in an oddly fitting twist of fate, he's returned to interviewing and reporting — but through his drag persona, Damiana Garcia, whom he refers to as “an intrepid lady reporter,” appearing in World of Wonder videos online.
After Dirty Girls was posted on World of Wonder's website on the evening of March 6, Dangerous Minds, a blog that riffs on new art forms and Internet oddities, immediately picked it up and re-blogged it. Lucid didn't even realize that International Women's Day was on March 7, prompting an overwhelming interest in the fiercely feminist video.
“And all of a sudden, everyone I went to the high school with, and the dirty girls, and everyone in the movie, contacted me. It's one big ongoing reunion,” he says, declaring YouTube the perfect home for Dirty Girls. “Before all the social media, it was hard to find a place to show Dirty Girls or for anyone to find it.”
Here's the full video
At the time of this writing, Dirty Girls has been viewed on YouTube nearly 150,000 times and more than 500 people have commented on the video, almost all of whom have asked the same question: what happened to the dirty girls?
Next: Yeah, what happened to the dirty girls?
“I'm Facebook friends with Amber and Harper and I haven't seen them now in so long, but from their photos, they look like they are enjoying their lives,” says Lucid. “Harper is a freelance photographer and I'm not sure what Amber's doing.”
A year after Dirty Girls was filmed, the sisters left Crossroads School and transferred to L.A. County High School for the Arts, where Lucid says they were much happier. Later, while working on the film for his NYU class in 2000, Lucid returned to Los Angeles and reunited with the dirty girls, who he discovered didn't look quite so dirty anymore.
“They were still strong, outspoken, dynamic, creative people, but they weren't dirty anymore,” Lucid tells us. “They were a little more glam. They were a little more stylish. I remember seeing Amber, she was wearing some really cool cowboy boots and some really nice jeans and a fitted white tee or something, and her hair looked really lustrous and glamorous and her skin had a natural glow. She looked very healthy and very strong and kind of glamorous.” (Vice just posted a profile of the girls today.)
Lucid didn't end up using the footage he shot in 2000 for the version that's on YouTube, “because the '96 footage looked so good by itself,” but with so many requests for a follow-up video, he's considering going back to re-edit the footage from 2000. “In a funny way, I'm checking back in [on my high school friends] every so however many years,” he says.
Lucid was worried about how some of his classmates — who in the film discuss their reactions to the dirty girls — would react to their portrayal now, years laters, as the film started to become so popular online. But he's been pleasantly surprised to learn that they're actually wildly amused to see themselves again as teenagers, and some don't even remember being filmed for the project. “I think it's a trip for everybody,” he says. “Even the kids who were so mean to the dirty girls in the film were just tickled by the whole thing.”
Even in 1996, when Lucid first screened a longer version of the documentary for his classmates, several of the students who had been critical of the dirty girls apologized for the things they said in the video. “Once they got the full story and really saw the dirty girls' side of the story, they had this whole other perspective,” Lucid remembers. “They were just having this reaction to the dirty girls without fully understand where it was coming from.”
Lucid has also gotten a slew of emails from current Crossroads students and faculty who are fascinated by the project. One of his former teachers asked him to come speak in her feminism class, and a current junior at the school told him the footage is shockingly accurate to her own experience.
“It's more than I ever could have wanted for the film, that it's affecting people — people that don't know these girls, don't know me, just total strangers,” Lucid says. “It's really reaching the people who are connecting to it the most, from teen girls to girls in their 30s who went to high school in the '90s and see themselves in these girls. That to me is so moving and so gratifying.”