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Arts and Culture

Portland Students Connect with Film About Immigrant Teens

Courtesy: "I Learn America"
Filmmaker Jean-Michel Dissard talks with students at USM earlier this week.

PORTLAND, Maine - A recent wave of immigrants to the city of Portland has meant big changes for the city's public schools, where about 25 percent of students don't speak English at home. As a part of the Portland Children's Film Festival this week, several hundred local high school school kids came together to watch and discuss a film that deals with immigrant teenagers' experiences at one New York City high school.
"How many of you were not born here?" In a crowded auditorium on the University of Southern Maine campus, filmmaker Jean-Michel Dissard is taking a survey. When he asks that first question, some hands go up, but not that many.

Credit Courtesy: "I Learn America"
USM students join the discussion about Dissard's film featuring immigrant students in Brooklyn.

"How many parents not born in the U.S.?" Substantially more.

"Great grandparents." Lots more.

"How many great-great great grandparents? We all come from somewhere else."

That's a big point Dissard - who is from France - is trying to make with this audience of kids from Portland and Deering High Schools: that nearly everyone in America is an immigrant if you go back far enough.

His film, "I Learn America," follows the stories of five immigrant students at Brooklyn's International High School at Lafayette for a year. Dissard says when he makes a film he's never sure what's going to happen with it, but this one has found a life of its own, with the students who've seen it around the country.

"And it's been wonderful to see the students connect to the students in the film," he says. "They see themselves whether they're American born or come from somewhere else, they see themselves in the struggles of the students in the film."

The idea that students share things in common rings true for Fatuma Mohamed, a Portland High School freshman who came to Maine from Uganda as a baby. She says that although the students in the film are much more recent immigrants than she is, feeling different in an American school is something that's familiar to her.

Credit Courtesy: "I Learn America"
Sandra Staniszewska, a student featured in Dissard's film.

"I kind of felt like me speaking a different language and feeling different because I wear the hijab, I think I kind of had some sense of connection there with them," she says.

"Being in the film was an incredible experience because I could show people that being different, it's not a bad thing," says Sandra Staniszewska. Staniszewska, from Poland, is one of the students in the film. Her story revolves around another kind of struggle to fit in. Sandra dresses in a very boyish way, but when it comes time for her to be part of one of the most American of High School traditions -- prom -- her father thinks she should wear a dress, while she plans to go with a tuxedo.

"Every single time I think of the scene where I have to choose a tuxedo, I think of my dad that he didn't know that I'm actually wearing a tuxedo to prom. So I always picture his face of the fact that - 'What?! You wear a tuxedo to prom? But you look cute!' But I always picture that with this scene."

It's these kinds of messages about being vulnerable, about being who you are, that seem to resonate with teenagers during the film's screening and a discussion with the director.

Find out more about "I Learn America."  The Portland Children's Film Festival continues through Sunday.