Locked up for logging on in ‘Web Junkie’
January 18, 2014
Fuse together scenes from every teenage dystopian novel you’ve read, and you can picture the opening shots of "Web Junkie." When patients ages 14 to 19 enter the Daxing Boot Camp in a suburb of Beijing, China, psychologists in white lab coats rouse them with flashing lights, strap electrodes to their brains and feed them pills. Xi Wang (Hope) plants his head on a desk. A sobbing student confesses, "I used the Internet."
Professor Tao Ran, the addiction specialist who runs Daxing under the Bejing Military Hospital, likens the students’ Internet use to shooting up with "electronic heroin." China classifies Internet addiction as its number one health threat to youth and has built more than 400 centers to treat it. Some of the teenagers undergoing treatment, Tao says, wore a diaper when they played World of Warcraft so they wouldn’t have to get up to use the bathroom. One admits to playing the game for 300 hours straight.
The first country to label the disorder has also nurtured a fertile climate for it to take hold in teens. China’s school system and one-child policy leave some students with intense competition for university admission and no real-world relationships. "Reality is too fake," says Gao Quance (Hacker), one of the three teens profiled in Web Junkie. Another, Wang Yuchao (Nicky) says he uses the Internet to connect with "another lonely person who sits on the other side of the computer."
When Israeli Filmmaker Shosh Shlam saw on Australian television that a 15-year-old was beaten to death in an Internet boot camp, she began to investigate Internet addiction as a social phenomenon. She knew the problem was extreme. The China Youth Association for Network Development puts the number of teens with the disorder at 24 million.
She flew to China to investigate, but the single-party Communist government doesn’t publicize its problems. "You cannot just open the Internet and find the website of this camp," Shlam said. She returned from the first trip disappointed.
On her second try, she ran into an Israeli journalist with access to Professor Tao. She explained to Tao that she needed to observe his entire treatment process. "Very quickly I created trust," she said. "He believes he is a pioneer and he wanted to be spread all over the world."
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The Chinese government would not permit foreigners to film the camps, so Shlam and co-director Hilla Medalia rode into Daxing in a jeep with curtains drawn over the windows. As in most Chinese military installations from the 1950s, housing was dilapidated and freezing cold. About once each week the filmmakers would escape to the outside world for a change of scenery and maybe a shower.
They lived among the boys for four months, shooting from the early morning until late at night. They attended lectures, family therapy and nighttime chats. With the camera in the room, Hacker tells his friends he is a virgin but that he fell for another player online. Nicky says he orchestrated an escape out a window, then urges the filmmakers "don’t tell the others, please."
"We told them it will help other children all over the world and they believed in it," Shlam said. "They liked that we listened to their stories and experience."
In their earlier films, Both Shlam and Medalia studied social issues with subjects who feel oppressed or silenced. By witnessing therapy sessions and listening to life stories to create "Web Junkie," they capture the teens’ pain. Hacker’s dad almost stabbed him before committing him to Daxing. Other desperate parents drugged their children or told them they were going on vacation to get them into the camp.
"For me as a filmmaker," Shlam said. "My belief is to bring a voice that is silent, to light a place that is dark."
"Web Junkie" is one of 12 titles in the Sundance Film Festival World Documentary Category and will screen:
Saturday, Jan. 19, 6:00 p.m. at Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City.
Sunday, Jan. 20, 6:00 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City.
Monday, Jan. 21, 10:00 p.m. at Redstone Cinema 2, Park City.
Wednesday, Jan. 23, 10:00 a.m. at Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City.
Thursday, Jan. 24, 9:00 p.m. at Sundance Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort.
Friday, Jan. 25, 3:45 p.m. at Temple Theatre, Park City.
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