After starting in festivals in Europe and the US, Our School finally had its premiere in Romania – a homecoming of sorts for the film and an event that we have been anticipating for almost six years.
We shot in a small town in Transylvania, a very real place in Northern Romania. Our intention was to begin to understand, and hopefully improve, race relations between majority Romanians and the Roma ethnic minority by showing under a magnifying glass the story of three spirited Roma children involved in a school integration project in Targu Lapus. After four years of production and two years of editing we ended up with a paradigmatic story of hope, squandered opportunities, and infuriating cultural and institutional inertia. And racism, quite a bit of racism. Some intentional, some merely reflexive, yet all of it profoundly familiar to all Romanians (ourselves, the filmmakers, included). This is precisely why we were bracing so hard and for so long for the Romanian premiere. We knew that in Romania, even more than in other places in Europe or the United States, Our School would be holding a mirror up to its audience – an unflattering one at that. And there are few things as counter-productive and virulent as unexamined, defensive racism.
We did what we could to prepare for the premiere in terms of press, NGO partners on the ground, and the main characters themselves. The NGO partners were as nervous as we were and chomping at the bit to use the film for their own purposes. The characters got to see the film on their own terms before the festival premiere, on the principle that it is cruel and unusual treatment to see your own story projected on a very large screen with a large audience before absorbing it privately. The kids had never been to the cinema before, so they were extra nervous. Our youngest participant, Alin, helped to lighten the mood by eating three ice-creams in rapid succession and contently throwing up right before the screening.
The press was lukewarm, understandably, since they had not seen the film, and the international success of the new Romanian cinema over past ten years has made them unimpressed with projects with the kind of international festival success that Our School has had). The online comments to the advance press coverage came exclusively from people who had not seen it, but assumed that no film on Roma would ever help. They made violent threats and personal attacks against our team for “destroying Romania’s image abroad.” We imagined they were people who had too much time on their hands, but we were still put on notice: Our School had the potential of generating a strong backlash, and that was the last thing we wanted to happen.
Matters were not helped much by the great folk at the Transylvania Film Festival who programmed us in the largest cinema they had: 750 seats. We worried that the seats would remain empty or would be filled with people who do not like what they seen on the screen.
We worried about everything.
Whatever fears we had were dispersed in the first five minutes of the screening. The huge audience laughed loudly at even the smallest jokes in the film. They clapped after particularly poignant lines, making the projectionist worried that they would not hear the soundtrack. They started sniffling, visibly moved towards the end. And, when the credits ended and we all lined up on the stage, we found them giving the children a standing ovation. For five whole minutes.
Alin turned to me and whispered: “Are all of these guys Romanian?” Yes, they were. And they were applauding the courage, resilience, spirit and sass of Alin, Dana, Beni – and all the Romanian friends they managed to make, despite all odds, along the way. The audience had connected to the kids, managing to see themselves in our film without defensiveness or rancor. They found ways to process and understand what they could change in themselves by the time the credits stopped rolling.
After the film…
A teacher confessed to treating her Roma students as inferior. I wanted to put her in touch with the New York teacher who confessed during our Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival that she had been tracking immigrant children in special education programs because she herself lacked support and know-how to integrate them.
A local mentioned a case of segregation next door to the screening venue – an activist invited the audience to investigate the case, right then and there. A journalist mused about what the Ministry of Education should do with the film – we referred him to the principal in Our School, who despite an awareness that the film showed him in a light that was “a little too true” (his words), ended up generously saying that it is an extraordinary tool that should be used to train and inform people not only in Romania, but abroad.
There were also hugs – lots of them. Alin, Beni, and Dana said that they were treated, for that one night, better than they had been treated, cumulatively, their entire life.
The press reaction that came in response to the screening was no less enthusiastic. A journalist confessed an allergy to issue films and declared herself not only surprised, but cured. An editorial talked about how Our School is not only a film about Roma, it is a film about us. A reputed blog said the audience had come in with fixed ideas and had come out with the urge to apologize to Roma children on behalf of all Romanians.
We know this was an ideal audience in many ways – progressive, trained by ten years of challenging festival experiences, and moved by the presence of the children in the room. But having an initial reaction like this from hundreds of people gives us confidence in what this film can do. It gives us trust that the film can accomplish what we always intended: Point to a systemic problem, make us understand it in the most direct, human way, and do the hardest things of all – change hearts and minds and open up a some hope for the future.
Guest post by Mona Nicoara, Director of Our School.
Our School is part of Working Films Reel Education collaborative.
The film screens at Silverdocs this Saturday, June 25th at 5:30pm.