Yulia Vishnevets’ debut documentary feature, Hey! Teachers!, has a much better, more meaningful title in Russian: Katya and Vasya Go to School (Катя и Вася идут в школу).
The pop title in English – with its Pink Floyd overtones in a tagline reading: «Leave the kids alone?» – does no justice to the subtleties of the Russian title, which carries the sense that the learning curve for these two young Moscow intellectuals taking on a class of rough, tough teenagers in a grim industrial town, is going to be a steep one.
The hard clash with Russian reality comes from the very beginning of a film that starts out with a comic undertone: Katya goes to her hairdresser to change her hair colour from a punk mix of different colours to mousy brown.
Something of an introvert, Katya’s task is to impart the finer points of Russian literature and language to a group of kids who know how to swear, but little more.
Vasya, a more ebullient, extrovert character, who will teach geography, clearly has the measure of the group of attention-deficient striplings from the start: «Geography is not the most difficult subject. You don’t need to be super intelligent to understand it,» he tells his charges.
Structured around the natural cycle of a school year, Hey! Teachers! opens with the start of autumn term – cue images of crying kids entering their first «big» school, and Katya doing her maternal best to comfort them – and concludes with the traditional «last bell» in May, a day of much pomp and ceremony in every Russian school (even Nika, the class joker and hooligan-in-chief looks smart and solemn, carrying a fluttering Russian tricolour aloft).
Whether Katya and Vasya understand it, as they bravely step into the uniformly concrete corridors of the school, it is this very formality that will chew them up and spit them out, as much as the truculence of a classroom of urban social terrorists jumping and jiving with the hormone overload of their age.
the learning curve for these two young Moscow intellectuals taking on a class of rough, tough teenagers in a grim industrial town, is going to be a steep one.
The two young teachers are by far the youngest on staff. Most of the other teachers likely started out during Soviet times and have only ossified since. It soon becomes apparent that trying to teach the literary concept of Romanticism to a class of cynical teenagers is not going to go very far. Sensitive Katya becomes increasingly frustrated and depressed.
Vasya, perhaps not suffering from the pitfalls of having teenage boys recite poetry with girls around, goes for a more active kind of learning: engaging in classroom debates on the (hot) issue of whether mobile phones should be allowed in school, and conducting role-playing sessions where the kids imagine themselves in 1916 on the brink of massive social and political upheaval in Russia.
Katay takes a more traditional approach – talking to older teachers (who advise never to let the kids have independent thought and woe betide the teacher that allows them to work out anything for themselves) – and, as a last resort, calling in parents to plead with them to read with their kids…to read anything. The looks of blank incomprehension, mixed with guilt on some faces of men and women with the hardened looks of poorly paid, exploited workers whose pleasures are mainly alcohol and tobacco, is a testament to that which has not changed in Russia since 1917, let alone 1991. Most of these parents have probably never read more than the betting tips in the back pages of Sovetsky Sport, or the kind of trashy romances – Russia’s equivalent of Mills and Boon – known in Russian derogatively as женская литература (women’s literature) that can be seen being read on any suburban commuter train.
The alternative methods come to the notice of the headteacher, whose tombstone teeth give him the look of a screen baddie in a B-movie. He takes to unannounced inspection visits to the pair’s classes.
But the real trouble surfaces when some of the brighter kids post politically-critical messages on their social media accounts, and the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service, a successor body to the KGB) gets involved, with calls to their parents and the school.
Vasya and Katya are given stern warnings and we know their days are numbered.
Katya goes first – resigning at the end of March, unable to contemplate another day in the school. Her kids, half of whom are revealed as homophobic racists after being asked to write an essay on nationalism, display some sentimentality. One girl even cries – at this moment, perhaps, realising just how different a teacher Katya is, and what investment she had in their futures.
It soon becomes apparent that trying to teach the literary concept of Romanticism to a class of cynical teenagers is not going to go very far.
Vasya sticks it out to the end of term, but his contract is not renewed, despite his pleading to be sent to teach the «gypsy» class – a group of no-hopers we never actually see and are not even sure whether the term is an ethnic or pejorative description.
Again, the kids who have grown, expanded, and begun to have some inkling of self-knowledge, understand their loss.
Hey! Teachers! is a sad reflection of Russia’s failure to instill any kind of true education and civic understanding in the mass of its young people.
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