'Our School' Shows Effects of Poverty and Prejudice
Our School doesn't press its case -- that racism and inequality pervade the lives of Roma ("Gypsy") children in a small Romanian town -- as much as it lets it unfold.
I remember this narrow makeshift bridge some of the children would have to cross on their way to school every day. As a mom myself, I shuddered every time I saw these small kids crossing over a river on what was basically a rickety wooden ladder. But we felt that we owed it to them to try crossing it ourselves. Well, we couldn’t do it, not if our life depended on it…. In our minds, the bridge became an object that embodied what these kids are up against, every day of their life, and how hard we have to try, as outsiders, to adequately represent their experience.
The mayor of Târgu Lăpuş smiles and spreads his arms. In welcoming the film crew, his words are… politic. "I'm glad someone has found us," Mitru Lese says, "on this hillside, with its extraordinary nature, special local color, and unique climate." That includes this fall day's temperate beauty and also, he adds, the winter's "bitter cold, different than anywhere else."
The cold, indeed the full range of weather, is especially hard on Târgu Lăpuş' Roma population, also known as Gypsies, who live their lives oppressed by poverty and prejudice. Their homes are unheated, their plumbing breaks down, and their one-room schoolhouse is now two and a half walls. For these and other reasons, many Roma parents want to send their children to school in town. Says one mother, "I say God worked just as much on us as he did on everyone else. It doesn’t matter where he goes to school, so long as he learns that's what I care about, learning."
As Our School begins in 2006, she finally has her chance, as 30 Romanian towns receive European funds to integrate their schools. Lese gestures toward a sign that proclaims the name of the project in his town, "Together in School and Life," and insists, "As mayor, I make no difference between Roma and Romanians, because Roma and Romanians have equal rights."
In fact, they don't. Shot over four years and focusing on three Roma children who attend the school in town, Mona Nicoara's documentary -- which screens 6 February at the DocYard in Boston -- reveals how inequality and racism shape their daily lives. Through some frankly lovely observational footage, some scenes that are painful to see (children doing their best to be children, amid hardship and harsh judgments), and remarkably revealing interviews, the movie doesn't so much press this case as it lets it unfold. Eight-year-old Alin is brought into a first grade classroom, where his teacher observes that he and his Roma classmates are far behind their Romanian peers, who have been to preschool. As she hands out notebooks on the first day, the teacher announces that they are "for writing," but, she adds, "It's no use having notebooks if you don’t want to write." As the film notes that six Roma children are set apart in a remedial class, she explains, "I have to work differently with them. My goal is to get them to first grade level. You can't do more, it's not possible."
Her view is shared by the school's director, Ovidiu Boga, who sits behind his desk while noting the inadequacy of the Roma students' "knowledge base." While he asserts, "There should be no classes organized by ethnicity," he believes "natural selection" will determine who will go forward in school. "Others will naturally get lost along the way," he says flatly, "because they come from an environment which lures them into dropping out and into tribal... life. That stuff is stronger for them that the call of civilization."
Dana Varga at home in 2010, age 20. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC.
As much as Boga appears to be choosing his words carefully for the interview, his chilling assessment affects the students from the film's first moments. When 16-year-old Dana is introduced, it's clear that she's eager to attend school, to leave behind the cows she's been herding daily for years. As the cows' bells sound in the background, she and her friends recall the director's advice to them, that going to school will allow them to "be among people. We're taking you away from the Gypsies and putting you among people." The kids smile, but as their exchange of glances suggests their comprehension of what this means, as well as their lifelong frustrations.
At home, with the cows, Dana is surrounded by children at play, the frame seeming to scamper to keep up with them. While she's attending school, Dana works at the "priest's wife," a job that has her scrubbing patio stones in the background while her employer describes her plight, and the help Mrs. Pop means to offer: "She can do homework here in the garage," she smiles, "Not in the house, she's not used to it." The camera cuts to a closer shot of Dana, bent over her work.
Though she has great hopes for school, it's not long before Dana's experience echoes that of Alin, who makes his feelings very clear: a few days into his first term, he's refusing to enter the classroom, and then, climbing over the blue front gate in order to head home. Even as he reveals that he's run away because he's "beat up" at school," his teacher guesses that he might be having trouble at home: "I don’t know how it is in their community," she tells the camera. "There might be dogs, there might be drunks." She invites the crew along on a visit after school. Here, making her way through dirt and mud, her fine black coat and bright red scarf set her vividly apart from Alin's mother, whose clothes are filthy. She explains that she and her husband work seven to five each day to support their six children: "We do sanitation," she says.
No adults seem to anticipate the difficulties students will have making daily transitions from one environment to the other. Beni's experience exemplifies the tragedy that results. Just 12 years old when he first appears in the film, Beni is thrilled to be headed to school, though an early interview in the hallway, with other Roma children, indicates the segregating that goes on within the school, per classes and remedial placements. "If we had, like, 25 Romanians, that would be better," Beni says as two girls stand near, their arms crossed even as they smile for the camera. "Then we could play together and become friends."
By the end of the film, when Beni is 16, he's been transferred to a "school for children with deficiencies," where he works on a coloring book, instructed to "stay within the lines." The director insists that "ethnicity" has nothing to do with such decisions. "This category does not target Roma students in particular," he says, "But Roma end up there because of their knowledge base, not because they have any developmental deficiency." The frame is steady on his carefully composed face. Like the Roma kids, you know what he means.