The two filmmakers on their new documentary, Web Junkie, about rehabbing the addicted youth of China.
For those of us who’re not aficionados, the cinematic YouTube trailer for World of Warcraft’s third installment, Cataclysm, announces blood and gore, crude humor, mild language, suggestive themes, use of alcohol, and violence. WoW is classified as a MMRPOG, a massive multiple role player online game, and the 16,998,014 trailer viewers, with a fourteen to one like-to-dislike ratio attest to its worldwide popularity. Still, it’s a video game, and small potatoes, you may think, compared to the devastation endured by civilian populations in the real world, and the concomitant, ubiquitous imagery thereby generated by the carnage, putting us, as the artist Carolee Schneemann recently emailed me, in “a whirligig of grief and outrage.”
But what if your sixteen-year-old son dropped out of school and spent forty days straight at the computer playing WoW? Or lied and spent nights at the Internet café instead of staying with friends? In China, obsessive Internet use by teens has been classified as an addiction and the number one public health threat to teenagers. Desperate parents are tricking or forcing their sons into one of 400 rehab centers run as military boot camps, where if you don’t make your bed in the morning, at night you sleep on the floor.
Two award-winning Israeli documentary filmmakers, Shosh Shlam (Good Garbage and Last Journey Into Silence) and Hilla Medalia (To Die in Jerusalem and Dancing in Jaffa), who have made a dozen films separately, collaborated on the just-released film Web Junkie, which follows three Chinese boys going through a treatment cycle in Daxing, Beijing, the first of these rehab centers, where the filmmakers lived for four months.
Web Junkie premiered at Sundance and recently played at the Film Forum in New York. I spoke to the co-directors in Manhattan this month.
Liza Béar I noticed that one of your earlier films played at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
Shosh Shlam It was my film, Good Garbage.
LB Did you find out about the Internet addiction problem among Chinese teenagers while you were in China?
SS No, I discovered it later, in 2010, on Australian news, when one of the children in a Chinese remedial boot camp for Internet addicts was beaten to death. I realized that in China this phenomenon is very extreme, so as a filmmaker I wanted to go to one of these boot camps and bear witness.
LB You’ve made at least five documentaries yourself. Why take on a co-director?
SS Hilla and I met years ago. We are friends and wanted to work together. When I came back from China, we thought this would be a big opportunity for us to do so.
Hilla Medalia I’ve made a few successful documentaries on my own too. This project sounded fascinating, and I also wanted to experience another culture in depth. In a foreign situation, collaborating was very helpful on many levels, both for emotional support and on a practical level during the shooting, and being able to discuss in your own language issues that arose.
LB Are Israeli teenagers addicted to playing these online games like World of Warcraft?
SS Yes, we have a very severe problem in Israel. Children are on the Internet from six to ten hours a day. There are young Israeli children addicted to porno websites on their smart phones. I think that China is holding a mirror to a problem the Western world is facing.
LB And not dealing with.
SS Not yet.
LB Web Junkie follows three Chinese sixteen-year-old boys admitted to Daxing, a rehab center/boot camp in suburban Beijing run by the military. How did you select these three particular boys?
HM Ideally we had wanted to film the boys from the time they arrive at the camp to the day they leave. That was the case with Hope, one of the boys. Another, Nicky, we didn’t start filming from the first day, but he was a good subject because his behavior really evolved. The first day we saw him he was so upset that he punched his fist into a window and hurt his arm. But when we spoke to him he opened up—it’s less common in Chinese society for a kid to talk openly about his feelings. Some characters find you, and some you find. One of the challenges was to convince the kids and their parents to allow us to film. Some parents didn’t want us to film their kids.
LB The Chinese have set up 400 rehab centers to deal with Internet addiction. What was special about the one in Beijing where you filmed?
SS The boy who was beaten to death had not been at this camp. This boot camp, Daxing, was the first one to be opened in China. I wanted to shoot there because Professor Tao, the head of the center, was the first to identify obsessive Internet use as an addiction, which he compares to heroin addiction, and to introduce this method of treating children through a combination of military-style boot camp and joint therapy sessions with their parents.
LB Did you think the treatment worked? How much time did you spend in the camp?
SS We stayed for four months, which is the duration of one treatment cycle. Professor Tao says he has a seventy percent success rate. We couldn’t verify that figure in other centers so we have to accept that as fact.
LB Do either of you speak Mandarin?
HM No, we don’t speak Mandarin but during the shoot we lived day and night in the center. Every couple of days we would leave, take a break. We used fixers and translators. All our crew was Chinese. We were really dependent on them for communication.
LB You assembled the crew once you got to Beijing?
HM No, we had contacted friends, like Lixin Fan, who made Last Train Home, and that’s how we were able to put together the crew before we left home.
LB Is Web Junkie the first film to deal with online addiction?
SS It’s one of the first. At Sundance, there were two other films dealing with the subject from a different angle. One, which was about Internet addiction, was filmed in South Korea. The other, The Internet’s Own Boy, a US film, was about Aaron Swartz, a hacker who committed suicide. But perhaps Web Junkie is one of the first to deal with the dark side of the Internet.
LB Well, Aaron Swartz was more of an Internet prodigy. Did it take a long time for the boys and their parents to feel comfortable with the camera and crew, and allow you to film that level of intimacy?
For instance, you were able to capture the boys talking among themselves in their dorm and ridiculing the program.
SS The fact that we lived there on base made it easier and quicker to build trust.
Still, it took time because the parents and their children were in a very sensitive situation. But we explained to them that telling their stories, though painful, would help other children in the world. They agreed.
HL The cultural differences also made it difficult. For instance, how important it is in Chinese society to save face, how you present yourself to the world.
LB It would strike people from our milieu immediately that a military approach to this problem is totally inappropriate. After all, it seems these kids weren’t delinquents. Did you ask the managers of the center at all why, for instance, they didn’t have a theater program, music, art, sports, so that these boys could develop other interests?
SS They did have sports. But Professor Tao believes that a military discipline helps to develop a sense of responsibility. Remember, prior to being sent to boot camp, these kids were playing World of Warcraft (WoW) ten hours a day non-stop. They have no borders. So, according to Tao, in order to function it’s very important for them to have discipline.
LB Did you think it worked?
SS I’m a filmmaker, not a psychiatrist or a psychologist. Of course, I wanted to document one of these boot camps because I am disturbed by the way the children are being treated. That’s what motivated me to go to China. But it’s not for me to judge, just to raise questions.
LB At one point in the film, some of the boys escape.
HL Yes, unbeknownst to us, while we were there one night a group of kids climbed out of a window and escaped from the camp. They took a taxi to an Internet café. But the log-in code in China is like an IP address, so they were soon traced and brought back. We couldn’t shoot the actual escape. We shot the aftermath and it’s a big part of the film.
Look, these kids are being forced by their parents to come to this camp because the parents can’t handle them. Some parents are even violent. For instance, Nicky, one of our characters, was told by his parents that he was going on a skiing vacation in Russia. Then he suddenly found himself in the Daxing boot camp. Especially at the beginning, the boys are very upset, and they really want to get out, but over the course of their stay they go through different stages. It takes them about a month to get over being upset and to slowly agree—or at least to get used to the camp routine because they think they’ll get out quicker. This escape happened at the end of the first stage.
LB Were your earlier films made in your home country and what are they about? I assume you live in Israel and not the US.
SS Yes, my films were made in Israel and one partly in New York. Mostly my agenda is social/political issues. So I will go to places to give voice to voices that are not normally heard.
LB For example?
SS Like Good Garbage is about a garbage dump in the Hebron Hills in the West Bank where Palestinians—mostly children–are trying to make their living from the garbage of Jewish settlers.
LB So how are they treated? Are they allowed to pick through garbage or not?
SS They’re not allowed to do it but they do it anyway. And they have a lot of conflicts with the Israeli army, the Israeli police, and the Jewish settlers who live around them in the West Bank, which is supposed to be a Palestinian territory.
My first film, Last Journey into Silence, was about Holocaust survivors in Israeli mental hospitals—a different angle on the Holocaust story.
HM And my first film, To Die in Jerusalem, was about a bombing in Jerusalem in 2002. The suicide bomber, a seventeen-year-old Palestinian girl, and the seventeen-year-old Israeli girl who was killed looked remarkably alike. I followed the journey of the two mothers searching for each other and how they eventually met—a reflection of reality that is as accurate today as it was in 2007 when I made the film. Then I made After the Storm, about the aftermath of Katrina in New Orleans, and after that Dancing in Jaffa, about Pierre Dulaine, an international ballroom dancer who started a program, Dancing Classrooms, in New York in the 1990s. He was born in Jaffa and returned there to set up dancing classrooms for ten-year-old Palestinian children and Jewish Israeli children so that they could meet, dance, and work together. At Cannes last year I had a film called the Go-Go Boys about Menachin Golan and Yoram Globus, kind of an American Dream story about two cousins who founded Cannon Films and wanted to make it in Hollywood. I always look for a personal story to reflect a bigger issue.
LB What was the biggest challenge in making this film, or the most important experience that you had?
SS Apart from overcoming the very large cultural gap so that we could get closer to people and they would trust us, the biggest challenge was to make this film without Chinese government permission.
HM For me learning what were sensitive issues in Chinese culture was the biggest challenge. It wasn’t the language barrier, the fact that we didn’t know Mandarin, it was the different mindset. These parents were desperate. The rehab center is their last resort.
LB But when you say, “different culture,” are you talking about Western Europe or Israel in particular? Because there’s an entrenched military culture in Israel.
HM But it’s not about the military culture of the boot camp itself. When we asked parents what they feel about us filming, about showing the face of their child on camera, their fears are incomprehensible to a Western way of thinking.
LB Give me an example.
HM One parent whose son we ended up not shooting told us that he was afraid that if we filmed his son, his son would not be able to get married. That’s something we couldn’t possibly imagine.
For more on upcoming screenings of Web Junkie, visit the film's website.
Liza Béar is a writer and filmmaker, the author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007) and a contributing editor in film at BOMB.