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'We were teenagers, but we didn't always exist," a young voice says defiantly in Teenage, a new film about the birth of youth culture long before the rise of Bieber.

A scrapbook of fascinating archival footage, newspaper clippings and quotes from teenage diaries, the film traces the preludes of this "second stage" of life between child and adulthood. Based on Jon Savage's book Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture 1875-1945, the film rewinds past James Dean, scanning earlier, more overlooked incarnations of teenagehood: party-loving flappers in the twenties, swing kids in the thirties, record-buying "sub-debs" in the forties.

Director Matt Wolf, 31, also looks at early teen icons who inspired youth mania: The screaming fans of Rudolph Valentino and Frank Sinatra don't look all that different from shrieking Beliebers. "We wanted to tap into the emotional intensity of adolescent experience," says Wolf, who worked for four years with researchers in Washington, London and Germany on the footage. He spoke with The Globe from Santa Fe, N.M., about why this demographic shouldn't be underestimated.

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It's hard for us to imagine a Victorian teenager. Who were the first teens?

It's really about: When did the second stage of life emerge as a distinct period and a distinct group? The first teenagers were a social problem after the abolition of child labour in the early 1900s. Adolescents had more time on their hands and they were getting into trouble.

The first youth culture came in the 1920s out of postwar shock. Flappers were a distinct type, with their own musical sensibility, fashion, vocabulary and inner references. Being young became an idealized state.

We all have nostalgic images of teenagers in the 1950s, Rebel Without a Cause, and subcultures of the postwar period: the beatniks, hippies, punks. But it was exciting for me to look at the youth movements that were not well-known or seen. The goal was to take the subject and to find its secret prehistory. Many of the sentiments of young people across these other eras are very similar to how young people feel today, to how I felt when I was young.

You talk about teens being both a wartime invention and an American invention.

So much of the generational conflict that fuelled rebellion and led toward teenagers being recognized as a distinct group came out of war. After the First World War, that's when the generation gap really began. Young people were outraged that adults had sent them to war – they felt like they'd been treated like cannon fodder.

In 1945, The New York Times published a column called A Teen-Age Bill of Rights. How important was that in solidifying the idea of teenagehood?

The term and the idea of the teenager had been percolating for years, but this idea that the teenager is a distinct social class, that they need to be treated like equals, and that they deserve certain measures of freedom and certain measures of control really crystallized in this article. It took the form of 10 commandments, of a constitution. It felt very definitive being in a paper of record. Coming at the end of the Second World War, it felt like a real paradigm shift. It was now undeniable that young people were a huge social force that needs to be recognized.

The war was a really important time for the development of youth because they were gaining economic influence: They were working and their parents were away. Especially adolescent girls – who would be called sub-debs or bobby sockers or Victory Girls – they were buying clothes, records; they had their own magazines. This idea that the teenager was an American invention was really tied to the idea of consumerism – young people gaining traction, visibility and influence as consumers.

Novelty is so important when you're a teen. They make for great consumers.

This obsession with the new, with the future, young people as pioneers of new styles and new modes of expression, that's what we see evolving in the intrawar period. After the war, adults tapped into that influence, taking teenage innovation and marketing it back to the young. In the 1940s, things started being marketed explicitly toward teenagers, especially girls.

You look at attempts to control and harness youth culture, from the Boy Scouts to, on the darkest end of the spectrum, Hitler Youth. What form does that take today?

Consumerism is the way that youth are regimented in contemporary society. If they're expressing themselves through the things that they buy and consume, young people are susceptible to the groupthink of advertising. That's not to say that all young people are passive consumers. There are always young people doing things on their own independently, or being involved in radical politics today.

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Occupy, as freewheeling as it was?

It speaks to the more general feelings of rebellion and how teenagers' desire to reimagine the future can manifest politically. Those are the sentiments that were at the core of the Occupy movement. Same with the student protest movements happening throughout Europe, even the London riots in 2011, which were more destructive and nihilistic but came from the sense of no feasible future and inheriting the problems that adults had created for them.

Did you get a sense of why teenagers are so often disdained by people who aren't young any more?

I think it's the opposite: The world is completely obsessed with youth and idealizes it. But at the same time, it's so true that adults, myself included, sometimes think, 'My generation had a more authentic kind of politics,' or more interesting underground subculture or music. It's easy to dismiss the youth of today, but the most interesting strands of youth culture don't necessarily reveal themselves in real time. It takes a decade or two to pass before we can see the most meaningful things that were unfolding. The film convinced me to have a more optimistic and sympathetic view toward youth. And to not idealize my own experience of being young because a generation before me dismissed me as well.

Today we dismiss millennials as entitled, we accuse teens of being more cruel than ever with their cyberbullying, and we revile their teen icon, Justin Bieber.

He's Canadian, isn't he? I'm interested in his story and what it represents about our relationship to young people and our habit of condemning them when they cannot stay young forever.

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As for millennials, I don't know if it's fair to say that young people are entitled. Young people are taking on incredible debt to get an education and then entering a job force that has no opportunities for them. They're faced with challenges that make it difficult for them to be individualistic.

What do you make of the modern in-between phase of 'perpetual adolescence?'

The generation gap was always wide: Parents were just so different from their children. My film argues that the rebellion that comes out of this generation gap is constructive and leads toward social and cultural change. Now parents want to be best friends with their children. Adults now identify with young people; they want to be young people. The generation gap is narrowing. I don't know if that's good or bad.

The film screens May 9, 10, 14 and 15 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto, and launches May 31 in Winnipeg and June 20 in Vancouver.

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