Web Junkie Sundance

A bizarre and entertaining documentary about China's attempts to reprogram its Internet-addicted youth.

Set in the first nation to classify Web addiction as a clinical diagnosis, “Web Junkie” takes a look at the Chinese government’s attempt to stem this “No. 1 public health threat to teenagers” via rehabilitation camps, where such afflicted youth (apparently mostly boys) are subjected to a mix of traditional therapy and militaristic discipline. From what we see, these rather old-school attempts to address a very 21st-century problem are none too successful. But with filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia granted extraordinary access to one facility, they make for a bizarre and entertaining documentary that should appeal to fest programmers and arts/educational broadcasters around the globe.

This particular center on the outskirts of Beijing is among more than 400 built so far to treat “troubled” teens. Of course, they don’t think they’ve got a problem, even if some confess to going days on end without food or sleep to play “World of War,” neglecting their studies,  lying to their parents to sneak off to the Internet cafe, etc. But the elephant in the room appears to be a generation gap: Parents raised in strict service to the Communist Party, family and work are utterly baffled by their disrespectful offspring, whose exposure to other cultures and consumerist values online makes those priorities seem boring or irrelevant.

Nonetheless, all this is taken very seriously by the adults — albeit much less so by the youngsters, who abide by the facility’s rules only because it makes life easier and will probably get them home faster. It’s hard not to wince (and laugh) when one boy, asked “What did you do (to be sent here)?” sobs, “I used the Internet!” Certainly none of them fit a Western notion of delinquency beyond standard adolescent rebelliousness. As the gap widens between this society’s interest in controlling a conformist population, and the encouragement toward free (if often frivolous) thought that Internet access spurs, China faces a crisis: How can it continue to globalize its economy without the next generation of citizens globalizing themselves?

The group therapy sessions we see between children and parents seem a genuine if sometimes clunky attempt at bridge building. On the other hand, some of the instruction feels as corny to the kids as it does to us, cautioning that the Internet is “electronic heroin” and that friendships with other alienated kids online are illusory. Nor does it help that most of the residents have been tricked, drugged and/or physically forced to come here, pitting them further against their parents. When we see the seemingly average, personable teens talk among themselves in their dorm rooms, their bonding under adversity and ridiculing of the program don’t suggest major behavior modification is imminent. As they see it, the world their elders live in is the real problem. “Reality is too fake,” one says.

The brisk, lively technical package is well turned in all departments.

Sundance Film Review: 'Web Junkie'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 19, 2014. Running time: 79 MIN.

Production

(Documentary — Israel-U.S.) A Schlam Prods. and Know Prods. presentation in association with Yes Docu, Impact Partners, Warrior Poets, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Tribeca Gucci, New Foundation for Film and TV. (International sales: Dogwoof, London.) Produced by Hilla Medalia, Shosh Shlam, Neta Zwebner-Zaiberg. Executive producers, Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Eve Ensler.

Crew

Directed by Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia. Camera (color, HD), Sun Shaogang; editor, Enat Sidi; music, Ran Bagno; sound, Li Zhe. 

With

Wang Yuchao, Xi Wang, Gao Qunce, Tao Ran. (Mandarin dialogue)

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