Systemic racism issues have come to the forefront of conversations recently across North America. They are words that have been openly talked about repeatedly for a while but it’s only recently that society as a whole is becoming truly aware and serious action is now taking place. Systemic racism comes in many forms and while these two words may sound new to some, they are not new for Asian-Canadian filmmaker Li Dong, who’s personal experiences helped shape his latest film, Stealing School.
Stealing School captures the modern-day anxieties of a generation currently facing uncertain futures through a satirical courtroom drama, told through the story of April Chen (Celine Tsai), an Asian-Canadian tech prodigy accused of plagiarism by her teaching assistant (Jonny Keltz), and forced to stand trial a week before graduation. Complex and layered relationships unfold, and racial tensions and systemic biases are exposed as the trial unravels, forcing viewers to question their ideas of innocence.
We had the chance to speak with Li Dong ahead of the film’s world premiere…
The film has a timely release given the current, and much needed, attention on systemic racism in our society — but obviously this was written well before. What motivated you to tell this story?
Li Dong (LD): I was always fascinated by these sort of faux-courtrooms for plagiarism held behind closed doors in prestigious universities. That interest, in combination with the rumours I heard about the large amount of cheating that allegedly happens with foreign exchange students (and the problematic stereotype that creates) eventually led me to this story. Also, as a Chinese immigrant myself, I’m no stranger to being perceived as sneaky/shady, despite being an actual real-life angel.
While the film does give us a look at racism, it is also layered with several storylines taking a look at how the outcome would and could affect every character on screen. How important was this for you to show all sides?
LD: When you’re dealing with an institution like a university, you have to show that every decision its employees make has economic, political and personal motivations behind it. So to have a bunch of characters representing the many facets of the university machine was important for me because it adds those layers of complexity and thus makes it feel more true to life.
If you could expand on one of the characters, who would it be?
LD: The production ran out of time and money before I could fully flesh out and pay off the Deborah/Richard love story. I would’ve liked to have given that another shot because it’s my ardent belief that someone should fall in love at the end of every movie.
The character of April Chen is not one that we see commonly for an Asian female role. Who served as inspiration for shaping her personality?
LD: I just really wanted someone I could cheer for in a movie! I do not take pleasure in cheering for good people or white people or men because I find them all boring. Thus, April.
The film could have easily turned into more of a drama but there’s a balance of humour, why did you decide to go that route?
LD: I think the scenario is inherently ridiculous, so that helped. Also, it’s virtually impossible to film someone taking themselves extremely seriously without it coming off as a little funny. Also, academics are weird.
You had studied law at Dalhousie – how did you turn to film?
LD: I hated law school so much and was so terrible at it that I turned to making little video sketches as a coping mechanism. When it became clear I wasn’t going to cut it as a lawyer, I decided to go all in.
This was filmed in Toronto – UofT? So, thinking ahead, what are some of your favourite locations in the city that you would love to use as a setting for future projects?
LD: The one that jumps to mind is that view of the skyline from Riverdale park, but I think they might’ve used that already in The F Word. If I had my choice though, I’d shoot the skyline from the direction of the water, through a yacht party.
Anything else you’d like us to know about Stealing School?
LD: It’s really funny! My first goal was always to entertain and to draw the viewer into a mystery and keep them engaged until the big finale! I hope people feel satisfied by the story, above all else.
A special premiere screening takes place on Friday, June 19 on Vimeo On Demand, followed by a live Q & A with the lead cast members Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz, filmmaker Li Dong, and a special guest moderator. Stealing School will be available on Vimeo on Demand from June 19, with the film available on Apple TV and iTunes on June 23.
Here’s the trailer…
Stealing School is written and directed by Li Dong and distributed by Game Theory Films. Li graduated from Dalhousie University in 2006 with honours in English and history and then went on to graduate from Dalhousie Law School. After law school Li played poker professionally before he was hand-selected by Oscar-nominated director Werner Herzog for his “Rogue Film School”. Li has since gone on to write and direct numerous short narratives, documentaries and music videos.