I Learn America: Film Review

Andrew Freiband
This timely documentary movingly depicts the efforts of immigrant students to adjust to their adopted country.

Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng's documentary chronicles the travails of five immigrant students at Brooklyn's International High School at Lafayette.

Even considering the current plethora of specialized high schools, the International High School at Lafayette is unique. This Brooklyn public school is dedicated to newly-arrived immigrants, with its roughly 300 students hailing from over fifty countries and speaking over two dozen languages. Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng’s I Learn America, recently showcased at the Doc NYC festival, chronicles a year in the life of five such students, movingly depicting their efforts to assimilate with the help of supportive teachers and school administrators.

The subjects, several of whom are undocumented, include 19-year-old Sing from Myanmar, who lives with his uncle and struggles with his limited grasp of English; 15-year-old Brandon from Guatemala, newly reunited with his mother who moved here a decade earlier; 17-year-old Sandra from Poland, who likes to dress in male clothing; her best friend, 18-year-old Jenniffer from the Dominican Republic; and 17-year-old Itrat from Pakistan, a devout Muslim who wears traditional head covering and is clearly anxious about the upcoming prom. “Do we have to dance?” she asks nervously.

The filmmakers adopt a typical fly-on-the-wall, cinema verite approach: sitting in on classes, meetings between the students and their teachers, and interactions among the youngsters themselves. Along the way we learn much about the students’ considerable travails, such as Brandon’s dangerous journey to America when he was just eleven and Itrat’s being forced to come to America to live with the father she barely knew after the death of her mother.

As the film goes on, it includes moments to which any teenager can relate, including Brandon’s neglecting his schoolwork after being rejected by a Honduran girl with whom he’s desperately in love. One of the more lighthearted segments concerns Jenniffer’s convincing several female friends to don tuxedos for the prom to express their solidarity with Sandra.

Unfortunately, for every meaningful encounter, such as the heartfelt discussion that occurs after one of Sandra’s teachers informs her that he’s gay, there are moments that are boringly prosaic. The extensive interviews with the five students become repetitive, and the use of crudely animated interlude is largely ineffective.

Still, there’s no denying the film’s social relevance, especially considering the fact that one out of four children in America is an immigrant. As is made all too movingly clear, the normal pressures of adolescence are sharply intensified by the cultural, legal and linguistic barriers that these youngsters must inevitably face.

Venue: Doc NYC
Directors/producers: Jean-Michel Dissard, Gitte Peng
Directors of photography: Jean-Michel Dissard, Andrew Freiband
Editor: Allison Shurman
Composer: Naim Amor
Not rated, 93 min.