It is usually quite easy to care about a documentary that is relevant to current events, and even more so when it offers a fresh perspective. The documentary I Learn America (2013) by directors Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng achieves both of these admirable goals, as it focuses on projecting those voices that, unfortunately, often go unheard.
This documentary tells the stories of five students attending the International High School in New York City, a school that focuses on integrating immigrant students into the United States. The students are from Burma, the Dominican Republic, Pakistan, Guatemala, and Poland, and each is forced to deal with their own unique set of struggles and challenges. Each student must learn how to create new friendships, while simultaneously attempting to adapt to a new and unfamiliar culture. The documentary ends with the prom and graduation of those students who were in their senior year, and offers glimpses into what some of the students expect for their lives in the future.
I Learn America engages the viewer through the variety and depth of the students’ stories. Sing is a Burmese boy who has been forced to learn five different languages as he adapts to different homes, Sandra is a Polish girl who loves the freedom of expression her new home affords her, and Itrat is a Pakistani girl who struggles to consolidate her love of her home and culture with her new social surroundings. There are students who are nothing but happy to be living in America, some who only want to go home, and some who are torn between the two worlds. Most importantly, there are students who easily thrive and others who experience more obstacles. Some stories were beautifully framed by painted stop-motion animations, and it was these voices that provided the truly unique overarching nature and style of this documentary. They offer a fresh and important perspective on the widely debated issue of immigration in the United States, a point of view rarely visited, as young voices don’t often travel far.
I Learn America presents the unheard voices of immigrant students in America, and does so in a well-balanced and engaging manner. By demonstrating students who are in varying stages of their quest to embrace America and its lifestyle, and by displaying teachers who having varying degrees of cultural knowledge and sensitivity, the film shows the many different types of struggles that young international students face. The film ultimately causes the viewer to question how much cultural integration is worth when it comes at the cost of cultural identity, and it addresses the heart of a key current issue by going straight to one of the most relevant and unheard collection of voices.
Screening Time: Sunday, February 16th at 2pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox