- By Park MacDougaldPark MacDougald is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs.
American college life is often depicted as a four- (or five-, or six-) year suspension of reality, in which the normal rules of society cease to apply and the nation’s youth indulge their baser instincts. Social media-inflected binge drinking, no-strings-attached sex, and all-night, amphetamine-fueled study benders are just a few of the troubling behaviors that have recently captured the imaginations of worried parents and New York Times writers. Ridiculous portrayals of college and fraternity life are a time-honored feature of the American media landscape, and most people know to take these caricatures with a grain of salt. But when you’re a filmmaker working for a hostile nation’s state television, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Enter PressTV. The state-owned Iranian broadcaster’s English-language programming has previously been criticized for alleged Holocaust denial and conspiracy-theorizing. And while it claims to be merely “heeding the often neglected voices and perspectives of a great portion of the world,” the finished product often bears a strong resemblance to Iranian propaganda. Nevertheless, reporters must report, and so, following its stated vision of “embracing and building bridges of cultural understanding,” PressTV dispatched an intrepid team of filmmakers to document the hedonism of America’s youth. The result is the documentary Behind the Campus Walls.
The documentary begins with pleasant shots of San Francisco, where, deep within the rows of quaint townhouses, we meet Yaou. He is enrolled at an unnamed local university, and he’s on a mission to break the law. He is, the narrator informs us, “neither a terrorist nor an escaped convict. But he is too young to drink in the United States.” Our hero then leads the filmmakers, playing the part of latter-day Henry Mayhews, into the seedy underbelly of working-class San Francisco to witness the purchase of a fake ID:
The whole thing is, admittedly, pretty sketchy, as we get to see Yaou purchase a fake driver’s license from a photography studio, before meeting up with the provider in an alleyway for the exchange. Perhaps the narrating is a little hyperbolic, but so far, there’s nothing here that wouldn’t be at home on Dateline NBC during a slow news week.
The real magic begins with a montage of American college life. Over footage of leafy-green campuses, the narrator explains that “to seduce prospective students, many universities … produce promotional films on par with Hollywood trailers.” The films, like the Utah State ad shown in the segment, “pay tribute to the noble values of their founders,” while “promising to all who enter their gates … a healthy spirit in a healthy body.” All, however, is not as it seems. These promotional films, as well as the “images of healthy youth” provided by college sports teams and Miss University pageant winners, are merely “masking other, less glorious realities” — namely, underage drinking and fraternity hazing. The problem is so bad that universities even hire their own police departments to fight these “stains on college life.” Finally, the narrator pops the million-dollar question: “Between tradition and debauchery, where lies the true face of American universities?”
Unfortunately, we never really get a good answer. What follows from here is sort of like a lame episode of Campus PD meets The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. After a weird section in which they harangue a freshman girl for her skimpy outfit, the filmmakers accompany a pair of University of Mississippi campus police officers as they escort a drunken freshman to an ambulance and issue citations to students drinking beer in a parking lot, followed by some (admittedly troubling) statistics about alcohol-related sexual assault. Nothing much happens, but credit to the narrator, who presents the action with the breathless tone of an anthropologist explaining the rituals of a peculiar tribe in Papua New Guinea.
After this, the documentary begins to slide into conspiracy territory, as the focus shifts from underage drinking in general to college fraternities in particular. As the camera pans over rows of frat houses, the narrator explains that it is “every student’s dream to be admitted into one of these majestic houses,” where, “behind the fraternity walls, there are no rules.” The key selling point? Access to alcohol. Here we get a hilarious explainer of what exactly fraternities are — top-secret networks of power that connect American elites, sending alumni into the top levels of U.S. government (George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice), business (Donald Trump), Hollywood (Brad Pitt), and the media (Ted Turner). All told, the Greek system is presented like Freemasonry with Natty Light and Lacoste pastels, complete with its own initiation rituals and secret handshakes.
There’s also a scene in which the PressTV crew rides around with a group of Ole Miss students taunting fraternity and sorority members on rush night. After teaching the Iranians a couple lewd backronyms for sororities, one of the boys, Clay, explains that Greek-affiliated students are like “homophobic super-Republicans,” before performing a secret fraternity handshake for the camera. Later, when the filmmakers are kicked off the lawn of an Ole Miss frat party (after claiming they were from French television), the plot only thickens. “What,” the narrator asks, “are the secrets these fraternities are so desperately trying to hide?”
Turns out, not much. Back in California, the PressTV crew is granted access to the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at UC Berkeley, where they are given a tour by the fraternity’s president, Andrew:
The filmmakers are allowed to film a group of lawless youths playing a game of morning beer pong and Xbox. This is probably the most accurate scene in the documentary, as the bros are viewed undisturbed in their natural habitat. Afterwards, the fraternity’s president brings them into the chapter room, which is described in a voiceover as the “most sacred part of the house.” However, despite the pretensions of suspense, what we get is sort of like Geraldo Rivera with Al Capone’s Vault, replayed on the tiniest scale imaginable. The door is flung open, but instead of an Illuminati inner sanctum, we get a business major in a Cal polo showing the camera old composite photographs of fraternity alumni. “These dudes …” he solemnly announces, holding up a faded picture from the early 20th century, “are like … prehistoric.”
The latter half of the documentary actually does focus on some more serious topics — there’s an extended section on the 2005 death of Matthew Carrington, who died from alcohol poisoning as a result of fraternity hazing — but there’s also some more lighthearted stuff. We witness campus police busting a fraternity that has accidentally caused a power outage due to a bonfire in the backyard, and follow along on an Oakland sting operation, in which a law student purchases alcohol without identification in order to crack down on irresponsible alcohol vendors. Here, she poses with one of her victims:
For its final act, Behind the Campus Walls visits Ole Miss on the Saturday of a football game. While common sense would dictate that Iranian state television probably wouldn’t mix well with liquor-soaked SEC football, it’s actually a pretty great segment. While the narrator tut-tuts about binge drinking, claiming that “for fans of all ages, the day’s objective is to drink as much as possible without getting caught,” Clay, one of the students heckling the fraternity brothers earlier in the program, explains to the PressTV crew the need for beer and mixers, what kind of bourbon to drink, and how to sneak alcohol in to the football stadium — by hiding shooters in your cowboy boots. He also brings them to a Chick-fil-A to pick up a chicken finger party platter. Viewers are also treated to photos of FDR and George W. Bush as cheerleaders, for reasons that are never specified.
All told, Behind the Campus Walls probably doesn’t have much new to offer — other, that is, than the joy of watching a bemused foreign correspondent try to make sense of fully grown men assembling complex tools for distributing margaritas.