Our school (r. Mona Nicoară)

The film exposes the bitter mundane and daily mechanisms of racism, while underlining the ways in which stereotypes become normalized and taken for granted. It exposes the crucial moments in which teachers transform their daily prejudices into discriminatory practices. These are the moments in which racism gets reinforced and perpetuated.

When local authorities from Târgu Lăpuş received European money in order to start to integrate Roma children together with Romanian children, one might think that questioning dogmatic positions does not unthinkingly embrace every possible alternative, and that it will be hard, but not impossible to succeed. But the authorities are transforming everything in a real carousel of segregation, make the children walk four kilometres to the central school down town, and to gather the trash from the courtyard during the recess. Soon after their old school was renovated, they cannot move in because the European Court of Human Rights decided for mixed classes. Then, the children are sent in a special needs school where they are treated with a sympathetic stupidity. They are encouraged to draw because “it develops the imagination” but with the colours chosen by the teacher (green is always for the grass).

Judgement is a word that carries threatening overtones – and pre-judgement even more so. In fact, how can someone’s prejudice become someone else’s education? In moments such as when the teacher admits that she is afraid to travel alone to the Roma settlement, or when the school director talks about ‘natural selection’, the film shows a remarkable ability to capture the discourse of anti-Roma racism. This discourse begins with small-talk stereotypes, continues with the segregation of school children, and finds its apex in more systemic mechanisms, such as the criminalisation of Roma people that is so prevalent in this region.

The director and her crew intervene in the documentary on four levels. First, there is obviously what the crew chooses to film, the movements of the camera and what it captures. Long shots of the Roma settlement that show the daily poverty in which people live have a clear message of illustrating a certain social context. Other shots of the children playing, or of some funny dialogues between them (such as the conversation about the stolen food) could point to their ingenuity and their innocence in the face of the injustices brought on them by the grown-ups. The camera seems to be following the children everywhere, observing them even as they do their small acts of naughtiness, like stealing flowers.

The discourse of the camera sometimes has very witty choices to frame but, comes across as condescending, together with the questions of the women from behind the footage, that chosen who to ask and when. Then, the viewer clearly suspects the author of a biased attitude towards the subject because the discourse of the para-textual information is leaded with great responsibility and takes the role of a narrator. Because of that, I felt the need to exit out of this convention and hear from Roma and Romanians children’s voices how the story can continue.

The second level of intervention is the set of questions that the director asks from the people that she films, some of which can be heard in the footage. For example, when she asks Elisabeta if she likes the school down town, and if it is how she expected, the director expects and manages to capture on film an evaluative discussion among the children, with regards to the new learning environment, a discussion that probably would not have occurred in the absence of the director’s intervention. Therefore, one can wonder if the other dialogues between the children were also not the results of interventions from the film crew.

Third, the director intervenes in post-production by inserting explanatory text into the footage. The text is helping the viewer keep track of the unfolding of the events, and also of the passage of time, as every now and then some chronological sense is inserted. Yet, at some points, the text comes as a counter-balance to some of the declarations made by the characters – for example, when the school director ensures us that moving some children to the disabilities school is not ethnically motivated, the explanatory text follows and informs us that ‘all the Roma children were moved to the special school’. In this way, the meta-text becomes an instrument of intervention, for voicing the concerns and thoughts of the director.

Fourth, there is the level of intervention through music. By choosing to illustrate her film with sporadic instrumental soundtrack, the director manages to express her ideas on a supplementary level. The music usually appears in moments of transition, and it is accompanied by explanatory texts. However, at times, the musical moments seem to ridicule the decisions of the authorities, such as the string-staccato played during the explanation that the town cannot use the newly built school. Therefore, the music is also used by the director to express her subjective views on the events. It is no wonder, then, that the closing credits feature the angry tones of Gogol Bordello, with text that explains the general situation of segregated schools in Europe.

Therefore, it becomes clear that this is a film with a political agenda, one that is not made quite explicit, however. The director intervenes heavily in the narrative, in the filming and the choosing of the subjects, and also in complementing the footage with additional explanations. The result seems to be a little too one-sided and overly engaged. There are very few voices that would present an alternative narrative; or, if there isn’t one, there is nobody to tell us that. What we see is a thoroughly black and white snapshot of a polarised community. Moreover, there is little sense of any Roma resistance: because the director seems to be so eager to push forward this black and white image, the Roma have to be portrayed as victims of the system. We see very little of how alternative forms of education are being practised in their community. We see little focus on educational practices outside the established school system – which, as segregated and racist as it is, still seems to have an irresistible attraction in the political imaginary of the director. There is at no point any doubt in the full emancipatory capacity of the established education system – its principles are right, and state-led education can generate better life for everybody. In the film, this goes unquestioned.

In this way, maybe the film stops half-way through. It has great political aims, and it succeeds wonderfully at exposing agents, practices and discourses of racial segregation and stereotypes. But the director’s engagement is ambiguous: it is too deep to let the viewer form his/her own opinion, and too shallow to fully unmask all the social injustices that are at work in the community. These are the reasons I chose to review this documentary, in the context of my own personal interests on drama in education, together with the idea that a field of knowledge does not necessary crystallize an identity.

Cîtea Elisa