In Romanian with English subtitles
1 hour 34 minutes
Instead of writing about the film “Our School,” I find myself staring into eight-year-old Alin’s brown eyes in his photo on the film’s web page. In action, he reminds of my grandson Sal at that age, arms and legs whirling with excess energy, antic, awkward, and full of innocent grace. When the other children speak, his mouth drops open slightly as if to catch everything, to make sure it is true and accurate. The mayor of the tiny Romanian town, Targu Lapus, gathers the Roma together at the site of the old “Gypsy” school—and like a villain in a Quentin Tarantino movie, tells them over and over again, wash up because the very next morning they will be going to a real school in the town.
What makes this film effective is that both the Roma and the Romanians speak for themselves. There is no all-knowing narrator. You don’t need one. Unlike Americans who would probably be aware of the politically correct way to cover up their disdain for the Roma, these people openly ridicule them. A priest’s wife asks Dana, the sixteen-year-old Roma girl who works for her—apparently without pay—what is two times two. Dana, scrubbing an outdoor area in the background, answers “5” and the woman mugs for the camera—see I told you she’s stupid. Dana longs to go to school. Her parents encourage her. If there were any Roma in Targu Lapus who didn’t wish for a better life for themselves and their children they are not in evidence.
To get cleaned up for this magical journey to real school, they will need water. Unfortunately, the one source of water for their settlement is not working. As a woman says without apparent rancor to the mayor—who claims credit for installing the single but useless spigot—“The Romanians poisoned the well.” Water is finally brought in by a fire truck and in the next scene the kids’ faces actually shine with anticipation as they are combed and scrubbed, readied for their ride into town in a horse-drawn cart, eager to be with “people” as they refer to the upright citizens of Romania.
The filmmakers, Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma, recorded over a period of four years, from 2006 to 2010, enough time for their presence to become part of the beautiful landscape of Targu Lapus along with the green meadows, the brown cows, and the dirt roads. For all the good intentions of the European Union to counteract centuries of segregation and exclusion of the Roma, at the end we are left with bitter disappointment. Not one of the children in the film still attends the school that the European Union funded for their integration. The principal, whose close set eyes would be a tip-off in a Hollywood production that he is the villain, says that there are “prize-winning students and children with problems.” He calls it “natural selection.” All of the Roma children who still go to school attend the School for Children with Deficiencies. Yes, that is what it is really called. And a sweet and loving sixteen year old boy sits with a coloring book in a bleak classroom there. The money that was to be used to facilitate the integration of the Roma into the general school population was funneled into rebuilding the old “Gypsy” school where no Romanian and no Roma will ever go.
Today I saw a very fine film by Jacques Audiard called Rust and Bone. In a throwaway remark, a character describes a man as a Gypsy who he caught stealing cars. We see this character; he arranges the illegal fights at the center of the film, although he has no lines. A few days ago I read an excerpt from a memoir in Harper’s Magazine about a writer’s experience on a collective farm in 1990 Germany. He lists the warnings he received from the locals, one of which was “Would I remember always to lock the door when I was working in the barn, in case the Gypsies came?” Someone in Our School says, “A Gypsy is always a Gypsy,” using the reliable shorthand for the ultimate outsiders.
Our School is an antidote to the casual poison of prejudice. Every teacher should see it, here and in Europe, so that if that smug look of contempt should steal over their faces they will recognize the ugliness seeping from within. When a teacher says of her students, “I tell them they should be more like me,” maybe he or she will see the film and say instead, I have a lot to learn from them.
I saw the film on Vimeo. If you would like to see it and you don’t live near a place where the film will be shown, check out the Our School website and contact Mona Nicoara. Wherever you are in the world, it will remind you of home.