Film Review: Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s “Web Junkie”

“Web Junkie,” a new documentary by Israeli filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia, raises far more questions than it answers about its subject. However, rather than detracting from its effectiveness as a film, this adds to its resonance as a potent snapshot of a rapidly changing society and people’s struggles to emotionally cope within it. And despite its rather alarmist, “Reefer Madness”-esque title, this is a nuanced and richly observant film whose slim running time (79 minutes) belies the breadth of the eye-opening insights within.

“Web Junkie” is set in China, which is the first country in the world to officially designate Internet addiction as a clinical disorder. The government, at least according to what we’re informed in the film, is most concerned about this among young people, especially teenagers. This is considered a social disorder problem on a par with drug addiction; in fact, a doctor in the film refers to online gaming – which seems to be the most prevalent form of Internet addiction in China – as “electronic heroin.”

A scene from Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia's documentary "Web Junkie." (still courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.)
A scene from Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia’s documentary “Web Junkie.” (still courtesy Kino Lorber, Inc.)

To combat this perceived threat to social order, the Chinese government has set up rehabilitation centers – of which there are more than 400 in the country – to try to reform teenagers, mostly boys, and break them from their obsessive behaviors. “Web Junkie” focuses on one of these centers, The Daxing Chinese Teen-Agers Mental Growth Center in Beijing, where practically all of the film takes place. This center, presumably representative of what these places are typically like, is a combination military boot camp, prison, hospital, school, and group therapy center, where all sorts of techniques are thrown at these kids, in a disturbingly ad hoc fashion, to wean them off their excessive use of the Internet. Although there doesn’t seen to be evidence that they’re being actually beaten or mistreated, this seems to be far from a happy or nurturing place for them. They all seem to have been placed there against their will by their parents; many of them tell stories of being tricked, drugged, or even forcibly removed from their homes when they explain how they came to be there.

The immersive experience the film offers contains some scenes that are rather grimly humorous, mostly concerning the varied methods of treatment, the effectiveness of which seems dubious, to say the least. For example, the students are made to perform military-style calisthenics each morning and participate in patriotic sing-alongs. We see one of the kids being examined with a halo of wires and tubing around his head, an electronic crown of thorns, looking like a scene out of “A Clockwork Orange.” The kids exhibit an acute sense of gallows humor about the situation they have found themselves in, trading sarcastic banter about their experiences. One remarks that according to the government’s rather broad definition of Internet addiction, 80 percent of all Chinese people must have it. A few of them give sarcastic mock testimonials about how they’ve been helped by the center, how deeply they’ve been touched by what they’ve been taught, and declaring that now they’re ready to be productive members of society. Hope, the boy the film most closely follows, stages a bold escape with a few other boys, only to be caught soon after … at an Internet café.

However, there are many other scenes that expose the serious problems in the kids’ families that have manifested themselves in the parents’ drastic action of sending their children to this center. Parents are encouraged to visit their children at the center and participate in group therapy sessions.  Some do, but others have to be cajoled and repeatedly contacted by counselors, who remind them that this is not meant to be simply a dumping ground for their problem children. The group sessions reveal the issues among the parents and their children. One mother tearfully tells her son that his excessive use of the Internet has turned him into a withdrawn, sullen person that she can now barely recognize.  A father talks matter-of-factly about beating his son and even once threatening him with a knife; his son later lunges at him, picking up a chair and yelling, “Do you want to die?”

Even though some of these boys seem to indeed have problems stemming from excessive Internet use – some talk of spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours in cafes playing World of Warcraft, and counselors speak of the boys using adult diapers to avoid bathroom breaks – the family scenes indicate that this may instead be symptomatic of much larger problems at home. Because of China’s one-child policy, practically all of these boys are only children whose parents pressure them constantly to get good grades, get into good schools, get good jobs, and such. Some talk of feeling isolated and neglected by busy parents who barely pay attention to them or fulfill their emotional needs. Retreating into the worlds of online gaming, where they can interact in the virtual world with others their own age, represents for many of them an escape from the “real” world of constant societal pressure to strive for endless upward mobility, a goal which feels hollow and fake to many of them.

Shlam and Medalia wisely refrain from offering broad cultural explanations, and from using the standard documentary methods of using expert talking heads to interpret things for us. By focusing on this one center, and making great use of what looks like mostly unfettered access and eliciting remarkable candor from students and counselors alike, they provide vivid human face to issues that too often are drowned in impersonal statistics. Because of this, “Web Junkie” leaves us with much food for thought and a long-lasting, resonant impression.

“Web Junkie” is now playing in New York at Film Forum through August 19. Co-director Shosh Shlam will appear in person at the August 8, 7 p.m. screening. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit Film Forum’s website.