TIFF’s New Wave Film Festival Review: I Learn America (2013)

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Cast: Benedict SieverdingLuisa GrossTali Barde
Director: Jean-Michel Dissard, Gitte Peng
Country: USA
Genre: Documentary


Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of TIFF’s New Wave Film Festival for young movie lovers. For more information visit tiff.net or follow TIFF on Twitter.

America means a lot of things to different people — a sanctuary to some, an escape from the atrocities in their own country, or merely a place of better opportunities to others. Common among all of these dreams is the hope for a better future for themselves and their family.

I Learn America, a documentary focusing on the high-school students of the International School at Lafeyette, NYC explores similar ground but from a very distinct angle of five teenagers, all of whom are immigrants from different parts of the world.

From the very outset, Dissard and Peng, the minds behind this project are mindful to emphasize that these students are first and foremost immigrants which sets apart the challenges they face during their daily routine in America as different from the other people of color. 

From the very outset, Dissard and Peng, the minds behind this project are mindful to emphasize that these students are first and foremost immigrants which sets apart the challenges they face during their daily routine in America as different from the other people of color. Like any documentary, I Learn America focuses on five students with diverse backgrounds and thus unique challenges to convey its themes. Sing, a shy and reserved student from Myanmar who escaped his country – first to Malaysia and eventually to USA – always on the roam, never feeling at home anywhere. His frustrations with his own alienation on knowing very little English mix with his own teenage angst in interesting ways and some of the attempts of his instructor to connect with Sing are put across in a very sensitive but reassuring manner.

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The teachers at the school are very insistent about the kids sharing their stories as they feel that the struggles they have shared might be different but an underlying familiarity will bring them all closer. At an early point in the documentary, students are given an assignment where they have to narrate their own story on how they ended up in America. Brandon, a Guatemalan teenager expresses a rather poignant tale shown to the viewer through a series of crudely animated drawings of being separated from his mother as a child only to be reunited with her years later in the States, but not before he made an arduous trip across the border through Mexico.

One point which gets reiterated at a number of points across the 92-minute run of I Learn America is that unlike many people of color, these immigrant students do not really have a safety net. Almost all of them have the uncertainty of being deported back to their old country hanging over them like a dark, looming cloud. Sandra, the Polish immigrant even acknowledges how she would cry for a long time if she gets sent away from here. Despite all the difficulties these kids go on a regular basis on trying to adjust with a new culture and a new world, almost everyone fears losing the thread of hope which America provides them with.

Conveying the difficult contrast between a first-world country’s privileged education system versus the third-world baggage you carry when you immigrate shows through in all these five students’ cases but to a varying degree. For Sandra, her family is well-off but her issues are more about others not thinking of her as “normal”, her arc being the most relatable to even non-immigrants. As for Itrat, an immigrant from Pakistan is more concerned about the clash between the dream that America offers her and the conservative religious roots that tie her to the family.

I Learn America’s exploration of some of the issues is on a fairly surface level – chief among which is the inherent prejudice that is bound to arise when you put people from different nationalities in one place. There’s a remote incident of a fight involving Sing but it is never really explored. Likewise, the subject of homosexuality is brought up by the school’s principal in a Q&A with a group of students which ends up feeling half-baked and unnecessary in the context of the film. In those parts, I Learn America does feel like it’s applying a slight artificial coating on top of everything so everything within the school premises is projected in a positive light.

In terms of documenting technique, I Learn America relies a bit excessively on the exclusive face-to-face interview with the five central students and less on background documenting, occasionally giving a feeling that its’ trying to reinforce the narrative it wants rather than what is there. You can see it on the faces of the kids – throwing anxious glances at the camera every now and then.

Despite the occasional sheen of glossy artificiality, I Learn America does come across as a well-done take on the hot-button issue of immigration through a perspective of the American high-school system, complete with gym classes, café nights, prom and graduation ceremonies that most can relate with. Ultimately, it succeeds in reminding its viewer that the core essence of America was always to provide a dream to those who can – and in that sense there can be no discrimination among the dreamers and hard-workers.

[notification type=”star”]70/100 ~ GOOD. Despite the occasional sheen of glossy artificiality, I Learn America does come across as a well-done take on the hot-button issue of immigration through a perspective of the American high-school system, complete with gym classes, café nights, prom and graduation ceremonies that most can relate with.[/notification]

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I'm Ansh, a student living in Mumbai who moonlights as a developer of experimental games and writer of short stories. I also write an occasional review of music albums and games.