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Five Questions for I Learn America‘s Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng

I Learn America

The coming-of-age tale is a durable independent film genre, but it takes on added political and personal dimensions in I Learn America, Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng’s documentary about five new teenage immigrants within New York’s public school system. Dissard, a dual citizen who immigrated himself from France when he was a teenager (and with whom I worked with on Raising Victor Vargas), and Peng, an education reform expert who worked in the Bloomberg administration, embrace within the film the emotional complexity of their subjects’ lives while an exhaustive outreach campaign amplifies its various messages and policy implications. I Learn America receives its New York premiere today at DOC NYC. That screening is sold out, and a second is scheduled for Wednesday.

Filmmaker: When did your interest in immigrant children in the U.S. arise, and how and under what timeline did that interest evolve into the film that became I Learn America?

Dissard: A few years back, I was one of the producers on Raising Victor Vargas. What we accomplished with Vargas is still with me. While making the Showtime documentary (and Tribeca winner) Rikers High or running film workshops in the Parisian Banlieue with immigrant kids, I’ve always gone back to Vargas and what we did then to let the kids take over the film and shine – to be themselves.

Now, whether they are immigrant kids in France or young newcomers in Brooklyn – refugees, naturalized or undocumented – the children of immigration, here to stay, are our future. The fate of these young immigrants is at the core of our continually emerging identity. How we fare in welcoming them will define who we are for years to come.

At the International High School at Lafayette in Brooklyn, we saw one school’s efforts to prepare teenage immigrants for the complexity and diversity of life in America. The work and educators at Lafayette showed us the power of putting young immigrants front and center – of enabling kids to be themselves.

Spending more than a year within the bowels of an American public high school had an unexpected consequence: it brought me back to the time I moved to America at the age of 15. That transition from living in France to living in Mesa, Arizona was rough. I went from a village of 2,000 people to a high school of 2,000 people and from green fields to dust and concrete. The American cafeteria didn’t even provide the same foods. No more green beans, and the fries got renamed. I couldn’t force myself to say the pledge in the morning. It made me uncomfortable being the new kid, attracting attention because I was foreign and that fabled “French” a desirable “foreign.” Among other things, it took me forever to figure out the American “dating” thing. The kids at Lafayette where we filmed I Learn America could empathize, and vice versa.

Peng: I’d worked in Mayor Bloomberg’s administration to reform the schools. So many of our city’s children are immigrants or born to immigrant parents, and many are English Language Learners, and the question of how to meet their needs was paramount. The Internationals Network model, which serves newly arrived immigrants in a rigorous and heterogeneous learning environment, seemed to offer a promising approach to educating immigrant children. After working in various capacities in public interest work, and at the 20,000-foot level of education policy and reform, visiting many schools and meeting with hundreds of students and educators, I made a short about kids at one of the schools. All of that grew into a desire to follow students over a year and to know people in depth rather than in one-off meetings. While I’d worked for years to effect broad change, especially in the heady world of education reform, making I Learn America allowed me to contribute to the social justice conversation in a more intimate way.

Filmmaker: Tell me about your casting process — how did you select your kids, and what were your goals in terms of the composition of your subjects, i.e., how to make them work as a group?

Dissard and Peng: I Learn America is the story of five teenagers attending the International High School at Lafayette, a Brooklyn public high school dedicated to newly arrived immigrants from all over the world. Sing is a refugee from Myanmar who has recently relocated to Brooklyn, leaving his family behind. He is isolated, angry and barely speaks English. Brandon made the journey from Guatemala to America to reunite with his mother after ten years apart. Crossing the desert and making the perilous journey was easy compared to getting to know his mom again.

Sandra is a tomboy and a class leader. From Poland, she’s also undocumented. She and Jennifer, a sassy classmate from the Dominican Republic, are inseparable best friends – “like a flower with water.” Itrat came to America from Pakistan to join her father, a traditional Shia Muslim. She embraces and stands between her two cultures and countries.

Our key casting decision was picking the school. The original idea was to film in five schools around the country to compare and contrast what the experience coming to America might be for a kid landing in rural Kansas versus a kid landing in suburban Las Vegas or urban New York. Through the research, the Internationals model in place in schools like Lafayette kept on coming back. Many experts in the field of education/immigration see it as a hopeful approach. See this New York Times article. To concentrate on a school that embraces the idea of equity and diversity became more interesting than showing schools that do not know what to do with young immigrants. By concentrating on such a place, the film might actually become useful for cities and school districts where demographics have changed significantly, and where school-based services, for many reasons, have lagged behind.

Lafayette was one of the most diverse schools we visited. As the principal says in the film, “When you walk into one of our classrooms, you’ll see students from Mexico or Albania who’ve been here for six years, who speak and write beautifully in English, next to students from Pakistan, Haiti and China who just arrived in this country three days before and speak no English. While they may come from different countries and different backgrounds, they are going through the same experience: learning a new culture, navigating a new city, reuniting with their family, making friends at a new school” … all this while dealing with all the teenage crap, the acne, the hormones, and much more.

We spent a lot of time in the school, and in many ways, the kids really picked us. The students who ended up in the film were as curious about who we were as we were about who they were — perfect ground for a relationship. The way we related to Sing, a refugee from Burma, was very different than the way we related to Brandon, who was undocumented from Guatemala. Still with each of them we found a safe place for all of us to open up and be ourselves. Ultimately, these five kids are just teenagers like any other teenagers, going through the same kinds of adolescent angst and exuberance. Yet they have experienced enough in their young lives to give them perspective and fortitude. It is mind-blowing that they manage to keep going, particularly as society erects countless barriers. Yet, they found a uniquely supportive and safe community where students are able to figure out how to express and assert themselves as they face all the trials of coming of age in a new country.

Filmmaker: How long was your production process, how much access did you have, and how regularly were you shooting?

Dissard and Peng: We filmed for about a year and a half (plus research/financing etc) and took seven months to edit. We worked with 10 students before zooming in on our five main characters. We filmed every week throughout the school year – in school, in their homes, throughout the city, in mosques, churches, the Coney Island boardwalk, restaurant kitchens, and soccer fields. Lots of Facebook communication helped us keep track of the daily ups and downs of their lives. They were courageous to welcome us into their lives. Audiences connect to their often unfiltered candor. Their stories inspire reflection, understanding and action.

Filmmaker: How do you feel your film or was not informed by the immigration debate that’s occurred in the U.S. during its production?

Dissard and Peng: Three years ago, when we first visited the International High School at Lafayette, the national debate on immigration revolved predominantly around border control, homeland security, and documentation. The country’s attention was focused on adult immigrants while neglecting their offspring. While filming, the political landscape started to shift. The recent action taken by the Obama administration with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and the debate generated by the DREAMers have put the children of immigration at the center of our national discussion. Today, Congress has an opportunity to recognize the hope, complexity, humanity and dignity of young immigrants by passing comprehensive immigration reform that reflects our shared commitment to equity and integration, reform that makes sense and recognizes America as a land of immigration.

The changes brought stability to two of the students in the film who are covered by DACA and do not risk deportation for now. But the intractable nature of the debate has strengthened our conviction that by walking in the shoes of these five complex (and in some ways, typical) teenagers who encounter everything from learning a new language to social pressure and visa uncertainties, communities around the country will come to understand how these children – and the millions like them throughout the United States – are an integral part of American life today. Regardless of the outcomes of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, the children of immigration are here to stay. They are the new Americans. Today, nearly one in four children in schools is an immigrant or was born to immigrant parents. Our classrooms are meeting a growing influx of students who speak little to no English, who are unfamiliar with American culture, and, in some cases, who lack formal education. The increases are occurring not just in long-time immigration hotbeds, but in places as Sevier County, Arkansas or Arapahoe County, Colorado. And the fact is, most communities are not prepared to support them academically, linguistically, socially, and civically.

Schools – the first and ultimate hope for integration – are generally ill-equipped to serve immigrant teenagers. Efforts to educate and integrate young immigrants across the country are limited. Especially in neighborhoods and regions where demographics have changed dramatically in recent years, schools lack the resources or understanding to meet the needs of new immigrant students. The traditional paradigm relegates them to the sidelines. Yet school offers their first chance for sustained and meaningful participation in a new society. It is in school that they determine where they belong in the reality and imagination of their new culture. It is through interactions with classmates, teachers, coaches, and social workers that they shape their identities.

Our film goes beyond the current headlines and immediate need for congress to act. It takes you in a school designed to integrate immigrants effectively, a school that offer promising opportunities to amplify the immigrant voice, a school that engage the broader community in educating immigrant students. When (if) the reform is passed, are we ready to embrace our immigrant self ? – We have much to learn from that school and those kids.

Filmmaker: You have an amazing array of organizations supporting your through events and partnership. How did you cultivate these relationships, at what stage, and what advice would you give to other filmmakers regarding building these types of grass-roots partnerships?

Dissard and Peng: From Madison Avenue to places of worship, from the halls of Congress to YouTube, the use of well-crafted stories has become a powerful force in society. I Learn America has good stories: intimate, alternately humorous and alarming, and ultimately hopeful. And with the right strategy, our stories have the potential to help people – young and not-so-young – connect with one another and help support a new generation of engaged Americans.

While filming and editing the film, we began to tap into the various stakeholders who care about the issues depicted in I Learn America. With our engagement partner, Active Voice, we focused on engaging immigrant serving groups and civic organizations as well as educators and education policy-watchers. We invited their feedback on scenes and ideas we were exploring. With them, we started to develop a strategy and relationships designed to raise awareness of the issues facing immigrant youth, and the myriad opportunities for supporting them as they “learn America.”

To coincide with the premiere of the film at the AFI DOCs Film Festival in Washington DC, our engagement partner Active Voice convened a target group of key national stakeholders comprised of funders, filmmakers, educators, non-profit leaders, and policy influencers. Since then, key representatives have been planning with us how to leverage the film to help them achieve their aligned objectives. Premiering in DC at AFI DOCs was the perfect way to start using the film at the national level through meetings organized by the festival with representatives in Congress and at the White House.

We aim to organize screenings and events in every state and have already began to spark “home-grown” activities in four sites around the country (Denver, Nebraska, Long Island and NYC). We’re working to turn local screenings and events into opportunities to broaden the reach of the stories featured in the film by enabling local immigration/education groups and educators to connect the narratives to their own work and to their personal experiences. So far, we’ve been successful, because the stories in I Learn America inspire reflection and understanding – We’ve gained momentum and are moving forward because we picked the right partners who get that good stories offer a powerful opportunity – perhaps our best opportunity – to realize the substantial changes young immigrants need.

Building all of these relationships and developing an engagement campaign has been just as consuming as making the film itself. We started from the outset and with the support of our allies, we are now ready to launch the project. Our boat is entering somewhat uncharted territory as most engagement campaigns seem to stop where we are starting. But we got great partners on board. Stay with us as we spread I Learn America throughout communities and schools and we use the film to support/empower immigrant youth.

Some of our key partners include:

Active Voice.

Welcoming America.

United We Dream.



Internationals Network For Public Schools.


Facing History and Ourselves.

The New York Immigration Coalition.

Make the Road NY.

One America.

Dept of education in New York, DC, Denver, Colorado

The Migration Policy Institute.

UCLA Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education.

And many more

I Learn America, Official Trailer from I LEARN AMERICA on Vimeo.

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