With support from the Mac Arthur Foundation, Jean-Michel Dissard directed and produced I Learn America. The film follows five recently arrived students—with various legal statuses—over a personally tumultuous year in an American high school. The film premiered at the AFI Docs film festival in Washington DC, played in over thirty national and international festivals, and was broadcasted on Al Jazeera America. In more than a dozen American states, Jean-Michel uses I Learn America to spark “home-grown” activities addressing issue of immigration and education. Building on the needs and creativity of local allies (immigrant rights’ NGOs, schools districts, universities and local governments), he leads community and school screenings, cultural events, storytelling workshops and less formal youth-focused activities in carefully chosen cities and towns where demographics have changed significantly. Prior to I Learn America, Jean-Michel produced critically-acclaimed films chronicling adolescent youth, including Raising Victor Vargas (Cannes Film Festival, Sundance), a feature film by Peter Sollett about the first love of a Dominican teenager in New York City; the Showtime documentary Rikers High (Tribeca Film Festival’s Best NYC Documentary), about three incarcerated teenagers in New York City’s Rikers Island jail; and Ezra (Pan-African Festival FESPACO Grand Prize, Cannes Film Festival, Sundance), a feature film by Nigerian director Newton Aduaka about a child soldier. Jean-Michel also co-wrote and was a producer on Down to the Bone (Best Directing and Best Acting, Sundance 2004) by Oscar-nominated Debra Granik. Recently, Jean-Michel wrote a TV series in Paris derived from writing workshops run with French and immigrant teenagers. Through his company, Jean-Michel sold and distributed internationally award-winning short films. Eight films from Jean-Michel’s catalog premiered in Cannes. Six films won major prizes in Sundance. His roster included filmmakers from the USA, Ecuador, Korea, Thailand, France, Iran, Palestine and the UK. He organized film showcases for New York University and Columbia University in Brazil, Ukraine, France, Australia, Korea and Germany. He ran a series of storytelling workshops in France and the Philippines. He is on the Advisory Board of Cine-Institute, the only film school in Haiti, where he taught. Originally from France, Jean-Michel immigrated to America when he was a teenager. He is a dual citizen.
Gitte Peng (Director/Producer) is an independent documentary filmmaker with a background in law, advocacy, and public education reform. Her film work has included a short on new immigrant students in New York City as well as production of documentaries for New York Public Television (The Jews of New York and Shakespeare on the Hudson). She edited under the mentorship of Sam Pollard. Prior to entering filmmaking, Ms. Peng served for five years as Senior Education Policy Advisor in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. She advised on all issues of education policy and reform and developed and oversaw education strategies and initiatives throughout the NYC system. She later served as a mayoral appointee to the NYC Panel for Educational Policy. Prior to joining Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, Ms. Peng directed parent engagement efforts and the support of School Leadership Teams at the NYC Board of Education’s Chancellor’s District, a district of low-performing schools. She also worked at the National Urban League, as a legal fellow in India researching child labor and education issues, in the Educational Opportunity Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, and in the Yale Law School Legal Services Clinic, representing asylum-seekers and low-income clients.