One of the handful of world premieres at this year’s AFI DOCS is “I Learn America,” a lovely piece from producer-directors Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng about five teenagers attending the International High School of Lafayette in Brooklyn. These strangers in a strange land find that adjusting to life in America is a blend of growth, sadness, fear, anxiety, triumph, and acne. Their names might be barely pronounceable, but in a land filled with immigrants, or a child of an immigrant, at least one in four students might not speak English or might not have a name we can easily say.
This film’s stories center around 17-year-old Itrat (a Pakistani senior who favors the traditional Hijab head covering), Sandra (ok, that’s a U.S.-sounding name, but this 18-year-old well-spoken, tomboyish senior is from Poland), Brandon Garcia (a soccer-obsessed, homework-less-so 16-year-old junior from Guatemala), the long-haired Sing Pi, a 19-year-old boy from Myanmar with limited English comprehension, but hoping for a better life, and the 18-year-old Jenniffer, the brown-skinned, dimple-chinned, aqua-nail colored, Dominican best friend of Sandra’s. Their backgrounds vary widely, as do their language skills, but as told by the school’s principal, Mr. Michael, all are in the same proverbial boat, learning a new culture and a new language, navigating a new country. His public school is geared toward their specific and unique needs.
The film takes the omnipresent camera approach, following the students and their teachers and social workers as they progress through one day at a time for a year. The cinematography is bright and airy, even if some of the stories are depressing. Brandon, four years in this country, tells of his father being killed as they was traveling here, a tragedy that befalls many who walk north through Mexico. Sing, uncomfortable speaking English, has no peers that speak Burmese. “In New York City, difficult is everything,” he murmurs, the sentence’s subtitle making it all the more obvious what can be found in thoughts. Sandra’s family has immigration problems. Itrat seems resigned to not have a profession, as her traditional parents have her future mapped out.
Occasionally, there is rudimentary yet funny crayon/cut paper animation as we learn about these kids. Initially the cameras stay in school, but then follow their subjects home to visit with their families. This approach parallels other popular documentaries, most particularly 2002’s “Spellbound” or 2005’s “Mad Hot Ballroom.”
I admire the school’s intense involvement with the students, whether discussing gay life in America, or the upcoming prom (a joyous celebration which covers about 10 minutes of the film). The film’s final minutes are sobering for some, euphoric for others, as the easy or hard difficulties of reconciling to life in our supposed land of opportunity culminate on graduation day. The only thing missing is the smell of the exotic food dishes that are swirling around the homes or at the school’s cafe night, an event that showcases the refugees’ stories as spoken by the students themselves. “I Learn America” gets a solid “A” in my book.