Buffalo, NY, native Nanette Burstein attended film school at that Valhalla of cinema upstarts and hopefuls, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, before moving into an eminently successful career as a documentarian. Burstein -- who did her first few projects with creative partner Brett Morgen -- distinguished herself by patterning her style after the legendary yet controversial nonfiction filmmaker Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North). More specifically: in lieu of simply standing back sans interference, and letting their cameras roll in the Louis Malle/Richard Leacock cinema direct vein, Burstein and Morgen actively involved themselves in the lives of their subjects, filming when they deemed it most relevant. This had a down side, as well: it occasionally invited allegations of onscreen contrivance similar to those directed at Flaherty. Nevertheless, many in the press praised the pair for their courage and directorial intuition.
Burstein and Morgen initially emerged on the international filmmaking scene with On the Ropes, a sociological study of four underdog inner-city boxers struggling against such blights as drugs, alcoholism, brushes with the law, and crooked managers, and each nurturing the hope of "making it." The film drew high praise from all corners when it bowed in 1999, and took Sundance by storm. A follow-up, 2002's The Kid Stays in the Picture, revealed the pair's interest in stretching the form and aesthetics of documentary in odd and unusual directions; with the first-person narrative from megaproducer Robert Evans' notorious tell-all audiobook biography on the soundtrack, it resisted the incorporation of interviews, relying instead on a combination of still photographs, location shots, onscreen illustrations (which the co-directors frequently animated), and archival footage to create an overlapping "collage"-like effect. The press ate it up, and like its forerunner Ropes, it received a warm embrace at Sundance, capped off with an appearance and talk by then 72-year-old Evans.
Burstein and Morgen subsequently moved into television, producing a number of projects, the most prominent of which, a reality series entitled Film School, reprised the approach and structure of Ropes but honed in on film-school hopefuls attending Burstein's alma mater. The co-directors then parted ways for a time; while Morgen branched off and helmed the offbeat documentary Chicago 10, Burstein temporarily moved to the American Midwest and shot a revealing sociological portrait of four American teens during their senior year at Warsaw Community High School, in Warsaw, IN, colored by on-camera romantic liaisons and breakups, mild anti-social behavior, social cliques, college planning, and numerous other developments typical for soon-to-be graduates of secondary school in Middle America. The film made its domestic debut in the late summer of 2008 to a generally enthusiastic response.