USA 2013, 1h 35min.
Our School follows the life of three Roma children attending school alongside Romanian children for the first time – part of a European plan to stop the Roma from going to segregated schools.
The US-based director, Mona Nicoara, is originally Romanian, and telling the story of Our School took her more than six years: Alin (8), Beni (10) and Dana (16) are Roma children from the Roma-dominated Dileu neighbourhood in Targu Lapus, a small town in Transylvania. Before being sent to the school in the centre of Targu Lapus, they used to go to a Roma-only school in their neighbourhood, a place where education was far below the standards of regular Romanian schools. The children have trouble catching up with their Romanian peers, so they are placed in a separate class. Also, the EU funds the municipality received to help the Roma integrate into Romanian schools are not used to help the children catch up, but to renovate their old Roma-only school in Dileu, so they can be sent back there. The documentary follows the children from the beginning of the desegregation process. From day one these children are treated with caution and a dominant approach. There is a certain contradiction between what happens at the intentional level, what the teachers think they should say and do, and what they actually say and do in the end. The devil is in the details, in the uncontrolled facial expressions and other visible hints. Their faces, tones and certain words betray how they really feel about these children.
The camera is successful in showing this important subtlety. Intentionally, the teachers and the people from the municipality don’t want to discriminate and they don’t even realise that they are doing it: they are simple people who do their job and see things the way they are used to. They are part of the community, they clean their houses, they iron their clothes. These children sit quietly at their desks, they raise their hands when they want to say something and smile politely. As parents, teachers and officials, they do things right. The way they treat the Roma is just the way things have been for many generations.
they are sent to a school for disabled children
But Alin, Beni and Dana are victims of a competitive school system that emphasises conformism translated as good behaviour. And the three Roma children do not behave according to the norms. Alin does not have the patience to sit in one place; he doesn’t feel at ease nor accepted in the class. At the same time, all three of them need extra help to catch up with their peers. But the school is not willing to invest in that. Therefore all of them are deemed problematic. Even the ones who supposedly want to help Alin, Beni and Dana, seem to do things from certain positions of superiority. Their good acts come out of a feeling of generosity and pity, which puts these children in subordinate positions. For example Dana works for the priest’s wife, but she’s not allowed to do her homework in the house, only in a garage with a table and a lamp. The camera shows the priest’s wife talking about how she is helping Dana, while in the background we see Dana cleaning the pavement with a small brush. This generosity, combined with a sense of dominance, is also apparent in the benevolent voices of the teachers – something you don’t hear when they speak to the Romanian children.
In short, no one gives Alin, Beni and Dana their vote of confidence, except for one classmate, Boda. He plays football with them and talks to them. And they are flattered. But it is enormously hard for a boy like Boda to resist social pressure. Soon enough his peers refuse to play with the Roma children. It is also enormously hard for Alin and Beni to ignore being marginalised, and against all odds to keep going to school and do well. What it all comes down to is the fact that everyone around these children expects them to fail. To such an extent that they help them fail. Nobody sees any reason to invest in them because of the same old arguments: that they’re not interested, that they don’t value school, that it’s a matter of time until they will quit. In the end it is a self-fulfilled prophecy. Soon Dana, now older, meets a boy and gets married. They quickly have a child and the circle of poverty is reinforced again.
She walks her parent’s life path, without many opportunities, raising a child that she says she will send to school. She moves away from her only chance to escape poverty because going to school is not compatible with having a husband. At the end of the film, six years later, Alin and Beni have been moved from the school in the town’s centre. The Roma-only school in their neighbourhood was finished and ready to be used but remained empty, since a European court ruling stated that segregation violates human rights. Therefore the solution found for Alin and Beni was sending them to a school for disabled children. Aged 16, the camera shows Beni colouring with pencils in a colouring book during class. Neither Alin nor Beni is disabled. But this is the only place the community deems suitable for them.
The film does not appeal to pity nor is it dramatic in the way most discrimination themed films are. It is a rather entertaining and astonishing film. What’s good about it is that it shows the unintentional face of discrimination and its harmful effects. Unintentional discrimination against Roma is life as usual in Romania. Prejudice against Roma is so deeply rooted in society that people don’t even realise that certain words are discriminatory. However, the film tells the story without heaviness and without demonising. It is not just portraying individuals in the classic separation between the abusers and the victims. It is rather a portrayal of human interactions within a community. Our School tells a story about the fear and prejudice that leads to rejection on one side – and the effects of being unwanted on the other.