CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 12. . . .November 19, 2010.
Lester Alfonso.(Writer & Director). Lea Marin (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
43 min., 32 sec., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9108 155.
Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
"I'm collecting survival stories."
Lester Alfonso came to Canada from the Philippines when he was 12-years-old. His family's plane arrived at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson Airport, and when he saw that the airport was named for a man with the same first name as he, it was affirming: Lester is a Canadian name, and to Lester Alfonso, that meant that he would not have to change his first name (unlike many of the subjects of his interviews for this documentary). Years later, married and with a young family, he became depressed, and sought therapeutic help. In listening to the story of his coming to Canada, the therapist remarks, "That must have been traumatic for you" and so begins a personal odyssey to return to that time in his life - age 12 - when, on the edge of young adulthood, he moved to Canada. Twelve is the result of his needing "to know what other people went through."
The 12 individuals Alfonso interviews for this documentary range from subjects who are middle-aged, to young adults in their twenties and thirties, ending with another 12-year-old. Of course, none of these individuals chose to immigrate - they were all "dragged along" by their parents (with the exception of George, who left an orphanage in the former Yugoslavia to be adopted out of an orphanage in Ancaster, ON), and most of these parents left their homelands in order to secure a better future for their children. In some cases, as with Bronwyn (who is still rankled by the memory of the kid at school who called her "Brown stain") or Bea (whose family left Hungary during the 1958), political unrest motivates parents to immigrate. Cultural shock is experienced by everyone, and in different ways and at different times in the last four decades, all of the interviewees recall the challenges of hearing and learning a different language, sounding different from others (Abi, originally from Australia, remembers schoolmates asking her to talk, just so they could hear her accent), and experiencing the reality of everyday North American life (Iga, having left Poland at a time when the black market and line ups were necessary for the purchase of consumer goods, remembers her astonishment at the vast array of foodstuffs at the supermarket, and she develops a huge sense of personal fashion style, as a way of carving out a new identity). Remarkably, none expresses bitterness, although many express bewilderment at insensitive treatment, especially by their teachers, at the time of their arrival in Canada. And as each person concludes his or her interview with Lester Alfonso, each offers a piece of advice or a response to the situation of being a 12-year-old transplant.
As the stories are told, Alfonso reflects on his own sense of understanding, and when he finishes his final interview with Sushmita, a recent 12-year-old èmigrè from the Phillipines, he feels that he has come full circle as he shares his own experiences of schoolyard bullying with her. And with that story, he tells his therapist about knowing that he will feel that he has "come home" when he completely makes sense of his past experience.
Twelve is a highly moving story of the profound emotional impact of what it is like to immigrate to Canada when just "on the cusp of teenage hormones." Senior high school classes in psychology, sociology and family studies will all find it interesting viewing, and I think that the film would be useful as a professional development tool for teachers in middle and senior schools with significant immigrant populations.
The newly retired Joanne Peters was a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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