“Stealing School” is a new movie by director Li Dong that focuses on modern day uncertainties about the future with an undertone of commentary on the realities of systematic racism. The plot follows April Chen, an Asian-Canadian tech prodigy who is wrongly accused of plagiarism by her teaching assistant and is subsequently forced to stand trial a week before graduation. As the film plays, complex and layered relationships unfold, and racial tensions and systemic biases are exposed which ultimately forces viewers to question their ideas of innocence.
Award-winning director Li Dong harnessed his own experiences of systematic racism and his time at Law School to write, direct, and produce the film. He recently discussed it via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for filmmaking and how did you break into the industry?
Li Dong (LD): While doing very poorly at law school some friends and I decided to film some short skits making fun of law school and I found I had a knack for it. After law school I focused more on becoming a filmmaker without any real proper training. After working in music videos and web content I decided that I could make a feature film and so went about doing that. I’m not sure I’m “in the industry” yet but hopefully the film will help change that.
MM: What inspired you to focus on a school-based drama? For instance, did you experience any of the things that we see in this film?
LD: While in law school I had heard about these fake trials with fake judges and fake lawyers trying to interpret the “law” of the school with regards to plagiarism. I thought it was a truly bizarre situation and I wanted to use it as a vehicle to talk about all the things I’m interested in including race, gender, power dynamics and the importance (or lack thereof) of a college degree in today’s work landscape.
MM: As an Asian-Canadian, how have you been affected by systematic racism?
LD: I would say very subtle ways, for the most part. Little microaggressions that chip away at my humanity (assumption that I’m a bad driver, for example) little by little. COVID has amplified that greatly. People seem to REALLY not want to stand near the Chinese guy at the grocery store nowadays.
MM: How long did it take to film “Stealing School” and how did you secure the locations and the distributor?
LD: We shot for thirteen scorching days in a room with no air conditioning. We were able to shoot at the prestigious university of Toronto with little oversight. Our Canadian distributor (Game Theory) introduced our film to Vertical and that is how we secured American distribution.
MM: What’s your favorite part of the movie and why?
LD: Every time I see a great idea that was not my own but came from someone else (like a department head) interpreting my direction in their own unique way was incredible satisfying. Quick example: In one shot I wanted the lead actress to look “naive” and the hair person decided to give her a “center-part” which really screamed “I’m naive!” on camera… but of course I would’ve never thought of doing this in a thousand years. There’s stuff like that all over the movie from every department and actor. I guess these little touches make me feel truly, deeply understood, on some level.
MM: Was it tough to meld comedy into this storyline?
LD: I wanted it to be funny before anything else! The situation is funny and the people are so uptight. Comedy comes naturally to me, much more so than the dramatic stuff. I thought about the jokes in the scene before I thought about the purpose of the scene, always.
MM: What other films have you made and what are they about?
LD: Much of my short form work deals with ideas of being Asian in a white country. It’s what I know a lot about and something that I don’t think is talked about a lot. I hope to make other people like me feel less lonely.
MM: What are your ultimate career goals and what other topics might you cover via films in the future?
LD: More than anything I want to tell Canadian stories and make them compelling to a global audience. I love my country and I want it to have its own unique cultural voice. I hope to contribute to that movement, even if in a small way.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
LD: I’m trying to develop some genre scripts; I really want to try my hand at a romantic comedy. In terms of “anything else I would like to talk about” I have some very strong opinions on the roster of the Toronto Raptors but I do think that’s beyond the scope of this piece but also please TRADE NORM POWELL ASAP. Thanks!