Sunday, November 10, 2013

Our School London at DocHouse


We are thrilled to announce that Our School will have its London premiere on November 28, 2013, in the wonderful DocHouse series, a year-round showcase of independent documentaries that fosters community among filmmakers and seeks to develop new audiences for non-fiction cinema. We are honored to be included in this year's line-up and to be able to present the film to the general public, the filmmaking community, the press, and, last but not least, the Roma / Gypsy Traveller and human rights partner organizations in the UK. 

The screening is, unfortunately, timely: It comes at a point when anti-Roma discourse in the UK seems to have reached a new low. Media and politicians seem to compete in spreading stereotypes and inflaming spirits against a perceived influx of Roma from new EU member states like Romania, Bulgaria or Slovakia, in anticipation of the lifting of work and travel restrictions for citizens of newer EU member states.

A Skype Q&A with Director Mona Nicoara and Editor Erin Casper will follow the screening.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Our School Supports Making Waves!


The Our School team has been involved with the Romanian film festival in New York for a few years now. This year, we helped put together a short fundraising video for their new Kickstarter campaign, launched at the Transylvania Film Festival, its partner festival, in early June. The festival, now in its eighth year, depends for its survival on the support of its audience and that of the Romanian and American artists who make it happen. All major figures of the new Romanian cinema and visual arts have contributed to the festival - from Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu through Dan Perjovschi and Adrian Ghenie. Without community, we cannot survive in these times of budget cuts and brutal government attacks on independent contemporary Romanian art.

Please help support the festival by donating to the project and sharing it with your friends. Every bit counts! Hope to see you in November at the Lincoln Center Film Society in New York!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Our School Is Out on DVD in Switzerland!

Photo (c) Miruna Coca-Cozma, 2011
After a long theatrical run in 2012, Our School is out on DVD in Switzerland! Thanks to Co-Director and Co-Producer Miruna Coca-Cozma, the film came out on DVD in late May - and is now available at all major vendors in Switzerland, with French subtitles. The official launch, hosted by our partner organization MESEMROM, will take place on June 26, at 7pm, at Théâtre Cité Bleue in Geneva. Miruna Coca-Cozma will be there to present a screening of the film, answer questions after, and welcome our audience with a drink and her trademark energy. Thank you to all who made this happen and supported the film in Switzerland over all these years during its making and its release - and a big thank-you to our lovely audience there!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Our School Screens in the European Parliament!


On April 11, 2013, Our School finally screened in the European Parliament. It's been a long time coming. This was one of our goals with this film from the very beginning, even before we shot the first minute for it. And thanks to Member of the European Parliament Monica Macovei and her wonderful staff, we were able to finally make it happen during a week-long series of actions centered on the International Roma Day (April 8) in Brussels. 

Monica Macovei has been a long-time advocate for human rights. Director Mona Nicoara first met her in the early 1990s, when they were both working with the Romanian Helsinki Committee. Over the years, Monica Macovei has shown an unwavering commitment to human rights and rule of law principles, even as she entered into politics, first as Minister of Justice in Romania and now as an elected member of the European Parliament. 

We are so grateful for this opportunity to show the film before members of the European Parliament, their staffers, and other decision-makers in the European Union. This is a crucial year for Roma integration in Europe, as the European Commission and its member states finalize and begin to implement continent-wide integration policies. We were thrilled to see a full house turn up for the screening - including activists and journalists who made the trip to the Parliament building for the specific purpose of attending the screening and meeting European representatives and their staffers. We were also pleased to see the Roma interns at the European Commission come to support the film - as they always did over the past two years. The questions after the screening showed a keen interest in the key challenges to integration: project implementation at the local level,

Friday, January 18, 2013

Our School is a New York Times Critics' Pick!

  We are thrilled to be selected as a Critics' Pick in The New York Times today! Jeannette Catsoulis's review, published ahead of Our School's limited engagement presented by the Independent Filmmaker Project and the Romanian Film Initiative at the reRun theater in New York notes:
"Part case study on entrenched racism, part heartbreaking human-rights story, Our School observes the feinting of small-town officials in rural Transylvania as they try to duck a mandate to integrate Roma children into the regular school system. Following three Roma, or Gypsy, youngsters for four years beginning in 2006, the directors, Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma, record the spasms of desegregation with patient persistence... And as events gather tragic momentum, the filmmakers see no need to underline their shamefulness. There’s no shortage of Romanians happy to do it for them."
Two days ago, The Village Voice also published an excellent review of Our School, under the provocative title "Seriously, People Still Hate Gypsies?" Nick Pinkerton noted that: 
"Despite the efforts of many interviewees to seem broad-minded, Nicoara has a knack for ferreting out moments that reveal actual Romanian attitudes—there's an Audi-driving priest and his wife, whose great act of charity is letting Dana work for them for free, and the teacher assigned to a Roma classroom who exasperatedly says, 'They have violence in their blood!' The school director will later opine, 'They come from an environment that lures them into dropping out and into tribal life,' anticipating his failure, but Our School does much to establish how that Roma 'environment' is reinforced from the outside."
And Film Journal International pointed out in its review that: 
"Our School's final, four-years-later summation—more than a coda, less than a fully fleshed-out segment—falls somewhere between starry optimism and resignation, and it's remarkably affecting in the way real life often is. Dana, Beni and Alin's lives have changed...not dramatically, but appreciably, and it's hard not to come away with a new (or renewed) respect for the potential power of baby steps."
The film opens tonight at reRun (147 Front St in Dumbo, Brooklyn), with a special Q&A with Director Mona Nicoara and attorney James Goldston, who argued on behalf of Roma children in landmark desegregation cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights. Most of early screenings are already sold out online. The remaining tickets can be purchased here.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Our School at the ReRun Theater in NYC!

Image from of reRuntheater.com
Between January 18-24, Our School opens for a week-long run in New York City at the delightful reRun theater in DUMBO, Brooklyn. Tickets and showtimes are available here. Director Mona Nicoara will be doing Q&As after each 7:30pm and 12:30pm screening, with special guests as follows: 

  • Friday, January 18, 7:30pm: James Goldston, who litigated the landmark school segregation cases before the European Court of Human Rights; he is currently the Executive Director of the Open Society Justice Initiative;
  • Saturday, January 19, 12:30pm: Margareta Matache, who led Romania's largest Roma rights groups, Romani CRISS, and is currently a research fellow at Harvard University;
  • Monday, January 21, 7:30pm: Ethel Brooks, PhD, a Roma scholar from the US; she teaches women's and gender studies and sociology at Rutgers University;
  • Tuesday, January 22, 7:30pm: George Eli, NY-based Roma documentary film director, author of the charming Searching for the 4th Nail
  • Wednesday, January 23, 7:30pm: Bogdan Apetri, NY-based Romanian director of Thessaloniki Film Fest-winner Periferic (Outbound); on the faculty of Columbia University's film program;
  • Thursday, January 24, 7:30pm: Ted Shaw, who teaches a course on segregation in Europe and the US and the Columbia Law School, and has spearheaded many school integration cases while leading the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

For us, this is a homecoming of sorts: The program of reRun is curated by the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP). Our School has been in the IFP family since 2008, when Milton Tabbot selected us for IFP's Independent Film Week meet market at a crucial stage in the project; that helped us receive the support and visibility we needed to complete the film. Since then, the IFP continued to support Our School though its fiscal sponsorship program and the 2010 Documentary Labs.

Adding to the sentimental background for this week-long run is the knowledge that the reRun screening room is where we showed several work-in-progress versions of the project and received feedback from trusted colleagues who work in documentary film. We are very happy to offer the finished film to our home town Brooklyn and to show it in the same room where worked our way though the cut with the help of the wonderful community of documentary filmmakers here in New York.

Our School's run is also proudly co-presented by the Romanian Film Initiative. the brave and dedicated team behind the annual Romanian film festival in New York, organized together with the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Transylvania International Film Festival.

So come see us in this lovely indie theater offering comfy reclaimed car seats and some very Transylvanian-sounding popcorn with duck fat and paprika!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Expanded Romania Release: Tour, DVD & Online Streaming

Image courtesy of Centrul Ceh & One World Romania
We are thrilled to announce that, following our tour of Romanian cities this spring, Our School is expanding to additional cities in Romania this fall, with our partners at One World Romania On Tour. We'll be screening in the following new cities: 
  • Brasov on Wed, Oct 31 8pm at Centrul Cultural Reduta
  • Galati on Sat, Nov 3 5:30pm at Muzeul de Arta Vizuala
  • Targu Mures on Fri, Nov 9 4pm at Palatul Culturii
  • Sighetu Marmatiei on Fri, Nov 9 8pm at Sala Radio Sighet
  • Resita on Wed, Nov 14 5pm at Colegiul T.Lalescu
  • Miercurea Ciuc on Thurs, Nov 15 8pm at Muzeul Secuiesc
  • Sfantu Gheorghe on Sat, Nov 17 7pm at Sala Ecou 
Our School will be launched on DVD in November as part of a wonderful first collection of documentary DVDs put out by our partners at One World Romania. The DVDs will be launched in Bucharest on November 22 at Libraria Bastilia and November 26 at Centrul Ceh. Meanwhile, they can be pre-ordered at a 20% discount here.


Finally, Our School will later become available for streaming in Romania on the WebKino platform launched by our distributor, Cristian Mungiu's Voodoo Films. We will update the launch date and post the text code for accessing the film as soon as they become available.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Our School Broadens Swiss Release

Our School poster at Bio Carouge in Geneva. Photo (c) Miruna Coca-Cozma
Following an eight-week theatrical release in Swiss Romande this spring, Our School expands its run to new cinemas, as well as to the German-speaking Swiss territories this fall. 

We have reached out to Swiss teachers' groups, human rights organizations and authorities to make the best use of the film as a springboard for a broader discussion about Roma integration and the pressing issue of overcoming prejudice in Switzerland, where Roma migrants often face backlash. 

Here is a partial list of Swiss screenings lined up for this fall:
  • Haute école pédagogique Vaud in Lausanne shows excerpts of the film on Sun, Sept 22 at 2pm at UNIL, Dorigny, as part of the Assises romandes de l'éducation, which focus this year on school integration; a full screening follows in the evening, with a discussion conducted by Miruna Coca-Cozma 
  • Our School is this year's opening film for the CinéBrunch Regards d'Ailleurs series in Fribourg on Sat, Oct 13 at 11am at Cinemotion Rex; Q&A with Director Miruna Coca-Cozma follows the screening
  • Centre de Culture ABC in La-Chaux-de-Fonds will follow a screening on Tue, Oct 23 at 5:30pm  with a round table on Roma integration with the participation of Amnesty International Switzerland, the President of the Neuchâtel State Council and the Head of the Department of Education, representatives of the Lausanne Police, and director Miruna Coca-Cozma; Our School will also screen at ABC on Sat, Oct 27 and Sun, Oct 28 at  4pm
  • Cinéma de Cossonay shows Our School on Wed, Oct 24 at 8:30pm, again with a Q&A with Director Miruna Coca-Cozma
  • The wonderful arthouse cinema Kino Kunstmuseum in Berne will show Our School on Fri, Nov 2 at 6:30pm, Sat, Nov 3 at 6pm (followed by Q&A with Director Miruna Coca-Cozma), Sun, Nov 4 at 4:30pm (also followed by Q&A with Director Miruna Coca-Cozma), as well as Wed, Nov 7 at 6:30pm
  • Cinéma Rex in Aubonne will screen Our School on Mon, Nov 12 at 8:30pm 
  • Finally, we're returning to the Carouge Cinéma Bio 72 in Geneva, where the film ran for seven consecutive weeks this spring, for an educational screening with Director Miruna Coca-Cozma on Tues, Nov 13, at 11am
If you cannot catch Miruna Coca-Cozma doing a Q&A this fall, you can take a look at her interviews in Les Quotidiennes - Miruna Coca-Cozma filme le reve entrave d'une école pour enfants Roms - or listen to the hour-long radio show featuring her on Radio RTS - Un documentaire sur les enfants roms.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Our School Supports Romanian Cinema in New York

Last year we had the honor of presenting Our School in the Romanian film festival in New York at the Walter Reade Theater, on the Romania's national day. Director Mona Nicoara, who lives in New York, had been attending the festival for many years. It is by far the most exciting and innovative Romanian cultural event in the city, with a fantastic audience, outstanding industry presence, excellent press coverage from the NYTimes to the Village Voice, and, last but not least, a great line-up of New Wave movies curated by a team of Lincoln Center Film Society and Transylvania International Film Festival programmers.

Recently, the Romanian Cultural Institute, which until last year funded the event, has fallen victim to political changes and culture wars raging back in Bucharest. You can find a good overview of the situation published by New York Times earlier this summer here. Since then, the Institute's programs for the remainder of this year have been defunded, its leadership replaced with throwbacks to Communist-era ideologues, and its mission changed to, for instance, producing a series of documentaries called "Treasures of the Carpathians." Just today, the newly appointed head of the Institute announced in an interview that he wants to shift the focus from film and the arts to promoting Romania's contributions to science and technology like the...radiator. It sounds funny, but for those of us who remember Romania before 1989, it is sadly familiar.

Luckily, the team who founded the festival is working hard to keep it going, with support from the Lincoln Center Film Society, private foundations, and Romanian artists. But they need to fill their budget gap through crowd funding. They just launched a Kickstarter campaign, which we supported by volunteering to produce the video below. 

Please donate and spread the word. Every bit, from anywhere in the world, counts, and every supporter and gesture of solidarity is an important victory for Romanian artists and filmmakers, and for the dedicated New York audience of this festival. A dollar a day keeps the radiators away. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Fall Festival Upate

Fall in Targu Lapus. Photo credit: Miruna Coca-Cozma (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
We have the first festivals for this fall confirmed. More to come, but here are the few that we can publicly announce at this time: 

Mu:vi Fest, Bistrita, Romania (opening film)
Prishtina Internatonal Film Festival, Prishtina, Kosovo

We will add screenings to this post as we go along. Please keep an eye on our UPCOMING SCREENINGS tab on the right for more screenings, including advocacy, community and educational screenings outside the festival circuit, and new cinema releases.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Guardian Op-Ed by Mona Nicoara on "Gypsy" Reality Shows


[This op-ed by Our School Director Mona Nicoara was originally published on July 28, 2012, by the The Guardian as American Gypsies Needs to Catch up with the Reality of Roma People's Lives in the Comment is Free section of the US online edition. Thank you to Jessica Reed and Gary Younge for supporting the publication of the piece.]

Reality shows feed on stereotypes and disdain for tribes other than one's own. Most people in the US know of Jersey Shore, which generated a debate around the representation of Italian-Americans on television. There are many more like it: The Littlest Groom (which plays on stereotypes about little people), My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé (overweight people) and, yes, the unfortunately and descriptively titled Black Mafia Family Wives.

Now comes National Geographic's new reality series, American Gypsies, launched on the heels of TLC's ongoing My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, itself a spin-off of the UK's Channel 4's enormously successful Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Sadly, this spate of exoticising voyeurism has nothing to do with genuine interest in Roma or Travellers, the two ethnic groups lumped together under the term "Gypsy" (a term considered derogatory by most Roma activists). Rather, it has everything to do with the chase for ratings, which is at the heart of the tabloidisation of television everywhere. Consequently, these shows are built on tried and true tropes: broad stereotypes, artificially constructed conflicts, unidimensional characters, set-up scenes and scripted lines.

Accuracy is beside the point: these shows are invested in reproducing a version of what it means to be a "Gypsy" that broadcasters believe to be most comfortable for their audience – Esmeralda-like headscarves, belly dancing, innate violence, gaudy parties, psychic healing parlours. The teaser for the series manages to cram all of those cliches into one minute, with time to spare. The response has been predictable: within a day, online comments were rife with racial slurs and no small number of sympathetic references to Hitler.

I have seen this dynamic before. I grew up in an atmosphere permeated by the kind of stereotypes about violent, dirty and scheming "Gypsies" that abound in Europe. I am ethnically Romanian and grew up in Romania, where Roma were enslaved until the 1860s and deported to extermination camps during the second world war. The few who remained nomadic were forcibly settled during communism. Then, many were chased out of villages during violent, deadly pogroms in the 1990s. To this day, Roma children are shunted into dead-end segregated schools which trap them in the vicious cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement.

Yet Roma continue to be blamed for living at the edge of society. Reality shows perpetuate this fiction of self-segregation by stressing difference and tradition, by recasting the viewers' ignorance as secrecy on the part of the Roma and by artificially presenting the preservation of ethnic identity as radically opposed to those elements that make up our common humanity: curiosity and learning, making new friends, falling in love. American Gypsies begins by pronouncing: "For over 1,000 years, Romany or Gypsy people have remained hidden from view. Until now" then proceeds to repeatedly flash info-cards on the fear of outsiders and the mating habits of Roma in their natural habitat. Fittingly, the tagline for this new show is "You Don't Know Gypsy." In the UK, the last season of Channel 4's Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was announced by billboards touting it as "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier." Try that out with other minorities. Really, see how it feels.

These shows are especially harmful because Roma people do not have any alternative representations in the public's imagination. There is no Roma equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci or Joe DiMaggio, to Rosa Parks or Barack Obama. In the US, where there is very little awareness of Roma, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding and American Gypsies will likely turn ignorance into all-out prejudice. In the UK, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has already led to a spike in bullying of Roma and Traveller children. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, where it has been syndicated, the franchise will only fan the flames of violent racism by playing into the hands of skinheads and nationalists.

I know there are other, much more rewarding ways to treat the subject for a general audience. In 2006, I took a small crew to a tiny town in Transylvania to follow a group of Roma children who were taken out of a crumbling segregated school into a Romanian-led school, where they faced further rejection and humiliation. Over the course of five years, we worked with the conviction that audiences would be interested in connecting to the day-to-day lives of Roma and exploring the complexity of race relations. It paid off: in the 30 countries where we screened over the past year, sold-out rooms engaged with our film in lively discussions that sometimes stretched for hours. We found mainstream audiences thrilled to be thinking for themselves, open to exploring their own contribution to inequality, and moved by our shared humanity.

We should give ourselves more credit: we have shown that we can break through patterns of oppression several times over the course of history. Little by little, the way we treat and understand Roma will change, inexorably for the better. It is a shame that television will have to catch up to this, instead of leading the way.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Our School Wins Best International Feature at HRAFF in Australia!


Wonderful news today - Our School has been awarded Best International Feature at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Australia! We are honored to have been selected from a stellar line-up, and to have been so warmly received by the jury and by public of the festival! We are also grateful for having had the chance to screen in multiple cities on the continent: Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane. We'd be hard pressed to find places more remote from Târgu Lăpuș, where Alin, Beni, and Dana live, so it's particularly thrilling to know that the story of these three children resonated for the audiences of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer festival update

Elisabeta herding cows. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

This summer Our School is coming to the following festivals:

Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, Australia
International Romani Art Festival, Romania

EducaTIFF, Romania
Cinema Al Kolenkit, the Netherlands
Baia de Cultura, Romania
Vukovar Film Festival, Croatia

We're also continuing to tour Romania with Zilele Filmului Romanesc, Poland with WatchDocs, and Switzerland as part of a series of special screenings organized by Pipas Films.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Our School on Tour in Romania


We're finally coming to a broad audience in eight cities in Romania! Over the next month, Our School will be touring Romania with Zilele Filmului Românesc, a caravan of the best Romanian documentaries organized by Voodoo Films, the distribution company started by Romanian Palme d'Or-winning director Cristian Mungiu to bring Romanian films to under-served regions of the country. 

Our School be screening in Ploieşti, Botoşani, Râmnicu Vâlcea, Piteşti, Baia Mare, and Bucharest between May 23 and June 29, alongside two other beautiful Romanian films: Dieter Auner's Off the Beaten Track and Anca Damian's Crulic. You can find a complete schedule of screenings here

Additionally, we'll have several screenings in Cluj through EducaTIFF, the film education program of the Transylvania International Film Festival, before and during the festival itself. More details coming up here

And we will screen in Timișoara, also in early June, through the traveling events of the Astra Film Festival.

Last, but not least, we will be back in Bucharest on June 10, in a special screening at fabulous International Romani Art Festival!

We will update all screening times and locations under the UPCOMING SCREENINGS on the right of this blog post, as the details become public.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We Need Your Input: Our School Coming to US Educators






Our School is part of Reel Education, a collective of nine documentary film projects that provide a nuanced and compelling portrait of education. Using powerful personal stories, and highlighting themes that range from closing achievement gaps to the protection of funding for after-school programs, each of these films has the power to influence a small corner of the national conversation on education and to engage people in action. But pooled together and positioned into the work of organizations and other leaders who share their collective vision, the impact of our media can be amplified.

We are collaborating with Working Films to identify communities across the country that could benefit from using the Reel Education films in their advocacy, training, or organizing efforts. We want to know which of these project are most closely aligned with the issues at play in your community and how film screenings could advance your work. So please take a few moments to check out the trailers for all of the amazing film projects and then answer this short survey.

We need your input! Have more questions about Reel Education? Feel free to contact Anna Lee at Working Films. She’s heading up the project.
  

Monday, April 30, 2012

A Special Screening with the Romanian Ministry of Education

Post-screening Q&A - from left to right: Mircea Toma of Active Watch, Director Mona Nicoara, Minister of Education Catalin Baba, Director of Photography Ovidiu Marginean, Magda Matache of Romani CRISS, and Costel Bercus of Roma Education Fund. Photo by Catalin Georgescu for One World Romania

[This blogpost by Mona Nicoara appeared originally as the inaugural post in the Dispatches from the Field series on the Chicken and Egg Pictures blog. We are grateful to Chicken and Egg for their continuing creative, moral and financial support of Our School over the past three years.

In March 2012, the Romanian Minister of Education made a loud, public commitment to include Our School into national teacher training curricula at all levels.  This had been the intention all along, since starting out development work on the film back in 2005: To get Our School  into the education systems of those countries where the issue of racial segregation of Roma in school was the most pressing. But the long way here has been neither straight nor obvious.

I came to the project as a human rights activist who had done extensive work on Roma rights. I knew the issue, knew pretty much everyone working on it — and had their support. I really thought that we’d be pretty much snap our fingers when the film was finished — and all the NGOs working on Roma education would rush to snatch the film from our hands and screen it for decision-makers all over Europe.

To be fair, some of that happened, right away: The London Secretariat of Amnesty International came on board after seeing a fine cut of the film, and have remained faithful partners for more than a year, encouraging their country groups to co-present some of our national premieres, organizing panels and Q&As, and taking the film over after our festival premieres for community screenings in places like Denmark, Greece or France. Works like a dream.

But we had some early wake-up calls, too: Our world premiere, scheduled simultaneously with a long-overdue review of the Czech Republic and Greece’s compliance with European Court of Human Rights judgments on school segregation, fell short of expectations. The Prague festival where we premiered was run by an organization that had just left an NGO coalition for desegregation in the Czech Republic — so it became clear, very quickly, that they were not going to promote the film. The local NGOs were busy waging war on the recent appointment of right-wing extremists in the Ministry of Education. Bringing decision-makers into a screening room was out of the question. And then there was the Czech press, which turned out to be more excited about films they had heard about from other festivals coming to Prague than about a world premiere which was, in their view, untested. (Lest this sound like a total failure, let me add this: The audience was just fantastic — warm, engaged and supportive.)

We learned two lessons: First, we needed to concentrate on making Our School a success as a film before it could be taken seriously as a tool. In the countries where we want to work most, there is no established culture of using documentaries as tools for change. For people to even begin to consider the social value of the film, we needed to first command as much of an artistic spotlight as we could. And, second, we needed to time events not so much around obvious advocacy opportunities as around the needs of our partner organizations. If that means waiting, so be it.

It helped that we had fantastic opportunities to position the film artistically right off the bat: A high-profile North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival; our fantastic Romanian premiere at the prestigious Transylvania International Film Festival; a grand jury prize for Best US Documentary at Silverdocs and nominations for the Silver Eye for Best Eastern European Documentary and a Gopo Award for Best Romanian Documentary; over 40 festivals during the first year alone; and some darn good press.

Some time towards the end of our first year out in the world, the invitations we had been seeking all along started coming in — from the various intergovernmental organizations which form the alphabet soup ruling Europe, from major funders and donor agencies, and from local partners who had very clear ideas of how Our School could be of use to them. It’s not always easy to work around our partners’ schedules to coordinate these actions with our continuing festival run (and try to get as much bang from our travel bucks as possible) — but, somehow, by hook or by crook, we’ve been able to make it work each time we needed to.

The screening we had in March in Bucharest is a very good example of that. The film had been in various festivals in Romania for nine months, gathering interest and momentum. As we were trying to figure out the best timing for an advocacy screening in Bucharest, an invitation to take part in the One World Romania festival arrived. We knew right away that this was a good fit: This is an strong, intelligently programmed and socially engaged festival (the proportion of consequential Chicken and Egg and Sundance Documentary Fund-supported projects selected each year would be downright funny if it  didn’t make perfect sense). They had a history of organizing high-profile public debates around  documentary films — and they were willing to do the same for Our School.

We a few loyal partners on the ground, starting with Romani CRISS, the most prominent Roma NGO in Romania, who had also helped us jump-start the project and served as our fiscal sponsor during production; and the Roma Education Fund, one of our earliest funders, whose leadership had already been co-hosting screenings of Our School in the US Congress, at the opening of the Verzio festival in Budapest, and before a crowd of pro bono lawyers and Roma rights activists in Berlin. However, while these NGOs were strong on substance and more than happy to help, neither of them had the experience or staff capacity to organize a high-profile advocacy event around a documentary film. That task fell to ActiveWatch, a media-monitoring agency who had the substance, experience, capacity, and convening power to pull off such an event. Most importantly, they had Teo, a whip-smart and devastatingly organized staff member with whom, over the couple of months leading up to the event, I ended up talking probably more than I got to talk to my own family. That’s really what it takes to make these things happen.

It was all going according to plan until the Minister of Education changed, unexpectedly,  one month before our screening. I knew the previous Minister (we had grown up in the same town and our parents knew each other). He was aware of the film. I knew he has interested in Roma education issues. The new Minister, however, was a total mystery. But he reacted very openly when approached, and promised to come to the screening. We kept our fingers crossed that the screening would actually stay on his schedule, and even managed to get a brief meeting with him the day before to confirm his presence, and make sure he understands the set-up of the event. Other officials, however, were less responsive: The President’s Office, the relevant Parliament committees, the Members of the European Parliament representing Romania did not send anyone to the screening, and it wasn’t for lack of trying on our (actually mostly Teo’s) part.

When screening time came around, we had an incredible energy in the room - the anticipation and support in Bucharest had been growing for almost one year, and it paid off big time for us. The 350-seat room was packed to the gills, with people jockeying for standing room. During the debate following the film, the Ministry committed to making Our School part of the teacher training curricula by the start of the new school year. The National Council for Combating Discrimination asked for DVDs that they could start using in training programs the following week. And the Pedagogical Sciences program at the Bucharest University asked for a screening in two days. It’s hard to even imagine a stronger commitment from government agencies and relevant authorities - but it all came about in large part because we waited for the right opportunity and had the right partners on board.

We were lucky in other ways too: The next week we were able to present our campaigning goals in the Good Pitch2 organized during the Movies That Matter festival in the Hague. The timing could not have been better, coming off the success of our Romanian efforts. We were able to garner interest from new funders who offered to supplement the audience engagement and advocacy grants we received from the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Open Society Institute. One of our earliest funders in Romania, UNICEF, offered to take the film on at a regional level.

Finally, we received an invitation to do what we had been hoping to be able to do with this film since 2005: screen it before European Union officials in Brussels. That’s coming up in May, together with an effort to replicate our work in Romania in Hungary, and, hopefully, as more grants come in, to other places where school segregation of Roma is a burning issue: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, but also Italy and France.

It is exciting, but also daunting: There is an awful lot of countries where we need to do this kind of work. We have already been on the road with the film for over a year, yet  we’re looking down the barrel of at least another year of this kind of work — and that’s after working six years to make the darn film. Thankfully, it’s worth it. And that’s what has been keeping us going all along, from the very beginning.

A Romanian public television show,  Rom European, dedicated to Our School's special screening in Bucharest may give you a flavor of the event: 


Monday, April 9, 2012

Our School Receives Graine de Cinéphage Award in Créteil


On April 8, International Roma Day, we had an additional reason to celebrate:  Our School received the Graine de Cinéphage award at Festival International de Films de Femmes de Créteil. The award is given by the youth jury of the venerable festival, and has additional, hopeful meaning given the recent history of Romanian Roma in France. We are honored and grateful - to the youth jury, the festival itself, and the our wonderful partners at Amnesty International France, who co-hosted our screenings there. We cannot wait to share with Alin, Beni and Dana the news that their story is valued by young film lovers!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Swiss Theatrical Release of Our School

Our School's French-language festival poster

We're thrilled to announce the theatrical release of Our School in Switzerland, beginning with March 14th, 2012, at Cinéma BIO in Geneva and Zinéma in Laussane. Miruna Coca-Cozma will be present to launch the film and do Q&As - she will be in Geneva on March 14th and in Laussane on March 15th.

Update: As of early May, Our School has already had a seven-week run in Suisse Romande, and has been extended through May 8 at Cinema Bio in Geneva.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Spring Festival Update

Springtime in Targu Lapus. Photo credit: Ovidiu Marginean (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
We thought that the spring festival season would be slower, one year after our premiere. But it's even busier than the fall - 15 festivals and counting. Here is the first batch confirmed for Spring 2012: 

One World Romania, March 13-18, Bucharest, Romania
Cape Winelands Film Festival, March 14-24, Cape Town, South Africa
Movies That Matter Film Festival, March 22-29, the Hague, Netherlands
Latcho Divano, March 23-April 18, Marseilles, France
Sebastopol Documentary Festival, March 30-April 1, Sebastopol, CA, USA
Films de Femmes, March 30-April 8, Creteil, France
Diversite, April 10-24, Franche-Comte, France
Stimmen der Roma, April 19- May 22, Munich, Germany 
Romanian Film Festival. April 25-30, Stanford, CA, USA
Council on Foundations Film and Video Festival, April 29-May 1, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Neisse FilmFestival, May 2-6, Germany
Romanian Film Days, May 4-6. Stockholm. Sweden 
Cronograf, May 10-15, Chisinau, Moldova
One World Brussels, May 14-23, Brussels, Belgium
Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, May 16-June 16, Australia

Thrilled to be in these great events - as well as in series screenings at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Sattya Arts Collective in Nepal, MIT, and others. We will update and expand this list in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on the UPCOMING SCREENINGS tab on the right side of the screen for specific times and places, as well as for miscellaneous other screenings outside the festival circuit.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Our School Nominated for the Romanian Gopo Awards!

The Gopo Award statue. Image: Premiile Gopo

Wonderful news: This morning we were nominated in the Best Documentary category of Romanian Gopo Awards (Premiile Gopo)! It's fantastic to see Alin, Beni and Dana's story included among the best Romanian films of last year. We are honored and moved to be nominated, and thrilled to be in the company of such wonderful Romanian documentaries as Radu Muntean's Visiting Hours.

The Gopos were set up in 2006 to reward the best Romanian film productions of each year - of which there is quite a bit these days: Past winners include 12:08 East of Bucharest, Palme d'Or Winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Emmy-winner The World According to Ion B, and the fantastic Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu

The Gopos were named after Romanian animation artist and Palme d'Or winner Ion Popescu Gopo, whose iconic character serves as the award statue. He's sort of an inverted Oscar: Equally bold and naked and shiny, he's a lot less muscular or broad-shouldered, sporting instead a pot belly to balance his large, puzzled head.

The awards ceremony will be held in Bucharest in late March.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Cold Cannot Stop Us: Our Most Memorable Screening in France

Audience marching between screening locations in the freezing cold. Photo courtesy of Cousou Main (c) Sandrine Balade

Last night we had an epic screening in the Festival Étoiles Francophones, in the words of Miruna Coca-Cozma: The boiler in the Magic Cinéma de Bobigny broke on account of the freezing temperatures, and the entire audience dutifully marched to a nearby library. 

Everyone stayed for the screening and the Q&A, despite the cold and the unusual logistics. We had an animated after-screening debate with Julie Biro from CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Director Miruna Coca-Cozma, and Philippe Goossens from Amnesty International France - and a fully defrosted audience. We were especially honored by the presence and participation of teachers working with Roma children (from Romania and elsewhere) in integrated schools in Bobigny. 

We clearly have an audience that's not only devoted, but very disciplined and patient. Grand merci! And thank you to the organizers of the festival, Cousu Main, for making this possible against the odds, to the Elsa Triolet Library for their last-minute hospitality, and to our partners at Amnesty International for being there for us, as always. 

This is by no means our last screening in France - but it will certainly be the most memorable!

After-screening discussion. Photo courtesy of Cousou Main (c) Sandrine Balade

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Screening for Romania's National Day at Lincoln Center

On Romania's National Day, December 1st we had a an excellent screening in the 6th Romanian Romanian Film Festival in New York City. It was a perfect time to think through issues of national unity, the value of diversity, and what giving a better chance to Roma children means for Romania as a whole. It was truly moving to connect with the large audience assembled at the Walter Reade Theater, and to get another chance to answer the smart questions of tough New Yorkers - whether they be teachers, filmmakers, Roma or Romanians.

We are very grateful to the organizers of the festival - the Lincoln Center Film Society, the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, and the Transylvania Film Festival - for making this possible, and to the wonderful Scott Foundas for his thoughtful and gentle work as moderator. You can see the Q&A session with Director Mona Nicoara and Editor Erin Casper below: 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter Festivals Update

Snow in Targu Lapus, Christmas Day 2006. Image credit: Miruna Coca-Cozma (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
Here are our festival and film series listings for this winter: 

Romanian Film Festival at the Lincoln Center Film Society, November 30-December 6, New York, USA
This Human World, December 1-10, Vienna, Austria
Documentarist: Which Human Rights?, December 7-10, Istanbul, Turkey
WATCH DOCS: Human Rights in Film, December 8-18, Warsaw, Poland
Trieste Film Festival, January 19-25, Trieste, Italy
Journées de Soleure, January 19-26, Soleure, Switzerland
Étoiles francophones, January 31-February 7, Paris, France
DocYard screening series, February 6, Boston, USA

Monday, November 28, 2011

Breaking the Spell: An Interview with Mona Nicoara

Mona Nicoara photo reproduced from DokWeb.net - Institute of Documentary Film
[This interview with Magda Španihelová originally appeared on DokWeb, the website of the Institute for Documentary Film in the Czech Republic. The IDF has been supporting this project since we first applied to pitch before television commissioning editors gathered at the East European Forum in Jihlava - back in 2006. We are so grateful for everything they have been doing for this film, and for Eastern European documentary more broadly.]

Institute of Documentary Film is pleased that five years after East European Forum pitching in Jihlava, Mona returns back with Our School among the 11 best feature documentaries of the East Silver Market 2011, wrapping up the year-round big time. The probe into the racial injustice in Romanian countryside spoke to international film festival programmers from Visions du reél in Nyon, Prague’s One World, through Tribeca Film Festival in New York City and Thessaloniki IFF, to DOK Liepzig, or domestic Transilvania IFF. The film also managed to reach for Sterling Award for the Best American Feature documentary at Silverdocs. Moreover, Our School is ambitions enough to reach beyond theatres and become a tool used to trigger discussions on the level legislation, as it already did with a screening in US Congress.

1/ You have been following the story of Roma community and the desegregation process for four years. The film is now finished and you are on a successful festival tour. Are you still trying to follow up children’s life in the community or is this topic closed for you?

We have formed a very strong bond with the children. We often talk to them and keep coming back to Targu Lapus any time we can. Sometimes we find ourselves asking the kids about their grades and about their life at home as if we were some sort of annoying, intrusive aunts. We know very well that these are relationships that go on for a very long time. But if you are asking whether we are going to go back and shoot another film there - we can’t answer that now, we just don’t know.

2/ As a human-rights activist you have showed longstanding interest in the issue of Roma’s ethnic segregation. So you knew that the whole process of desegregation was failing from its very beginning when the money dedicated for the integration of Roma’s children into “normal” schools were used for the community school renovation. Did you have any ambition to react, try to oppose or just somehow influence it? Or was it from the beginning the idea to point out this bad approach to the whole process of desegregation?

Our initial intention was to film an integration process, so we looked for a place where it seemed things are going to work out. And Targu Lapus looked very promising that way when we first scouted locations. It wasn’t until a few months into the first year of shooting when we realized that things might not turn out as well as we had initially hoped. It’s hard to know if and when and which people in town knew that the integration project was not meant to succeed. The authorities in Targu Lapus had originally promised they would integrate the Roma children and turn the old segregated school into an after-school or a school readiness center - so the idea that the building would become once more a fully functional school serving only the Roma children in the community came to us as a total surprise. We don’t believe in segregation, and we could not witness something like that without feeling complicit. It was apparent to us that the Roma kids were expected to move back to the segregated school, so we mentioned it to the people in the Ministry of Education who were supervising the integration project and had directed us to Targu Lapus in the first place - but we don’t know where it went from there. When the European Court of Human Rights judgment in the D.H. vs Czech Republic case came down, with all the changes in national regulations that flowed from it, we were very relieved, since we knew that the kids could not be moved back to the segregated school. Once more, we thought that the film would have a happy ending. But by the time we came back for the final shoot, we found that the children had already been moved into a third school. It was heartbreaking. In fact, it still is.

3/ Behind the camera you are more likely in the role of an observer. When/why you had adopted the observer’s role?

We knew even before we started shooting that this would be a film about understanding - about looking into something we think we know but never really see, about grasping complexity as such, without reductive explanations or over-simplification. The vérité approach was the only option that seemed true to that intention and stylistically viable for us. We wanted to let the audience experience and understand things by themselves as much as possible. We hoped the apparent immediacy of this approach would help us remove a layer of mistrust and preconceived notions, and allow viewers to simply watch, follow, and hopefully empathize directly with each of our participants, on their own terms.

4/ The viewers can’t see you in any interaction of confrontation with local people; you are not performing in the movie. Were those scenes removed on purpose or these situations just didn’t happen?

We never inserted ourselves in any situation, much less try to provoke or change a situation by intervening in it. This was simply not part of the conception for this project. Also, it would have gotten us in real trouble in some situations, like the classroom, were the last thing we wanted to do was to disrupt the teaching process. The teachers would have chased us out of the classroom if we ever intervened, rightfully so - and that would have been the end of the project. This was never meant to be a film about us - it’s a film about three children and the world they live in. We just wanted to follow the lives of our participants, as respectfully and unobtrusively as we could. Audiences do hear, though, our presence in the interviews - and only there. We thought it would be much more honest to the viewers to leave the questions in, and that it would help viewers understand our position as filmmakers and the dynamics of our presence there as a crew.

5/ There are some racist statements in the film (the teacher calls the work with Roma as working in toxic surrounding) – Did it touch you personally? Did you feel the need to give a loud response to this?

Of course it was hard to hear all the casual racism. We sometimes pressed people on those points in interviews and tried to save them, as it were, from their own statements - but we rarely got different responses as a result. Racism against Roma at the level of discourse is so engrained, even socially acceptable, that people don’t give it a second thought. But we also have to remember the flip-side of that: Sometimes racist statements are nothing more than reflexes. For instance, some of the Romanian adults who treated Roma kids fairly and with no prejudice would casually toss around all sorts of negative stereotypes about the Roma. But their actions clearly contradicted their words. We also saw that people whom we saw engaging in politically correct discourse didn’t always believe in what they were saying or act on it. That was an important lesson for us.  As filmmakers, we tried to stay true to people’s character, rather than judge people by their words alone.

6/ Did you think over the film structure (the main child protagonists etc.) in advance and how much? Or is the film rather an editing room result based on the footage you got?

It is both. We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to have three main protagonists and create a longitudinal project following a process that has beginning, middle and end. Chronology and outward narrative gave us a good scaffolding that way, but it also placed some interesting creative limitations on what we could do in terms of emotional structure and story. We edited for almost a year and a half - and a good half of that was dedicated solely to working out the emotional structure of the story, as well as character definition and development within the frame of a chronological narrative.

7/ Originally, the movie should have been edited by Jonathan Oppenheim, but it was finally edited by Erin Casper and Jonathan remained a consultant. Did he make any particular interventions to the film structure? This kind of long-run, personal shooting sometimes makes the director lose the healthy distance from the topic. Doesn’t it make, in these cases, the editor’s point-of-view the most fundamental one? How was it in your case?

Indeed, both Jonathan and Erin are full creative partners with us on this project. Jonathan and Erin started working alongside each other on our first assembly, and Jonathan stayed on working on big picture structure and style through to the very end, while Erin took the lead doing hands-on editing. Together they helped us shape a stronger story, teasing out telling details and snatching wonderful instances of humor out of an otherwise grim reality. Erin was fantastic at working on emotional structure and digging out these little scenes, gestures, and images that we would have easily overlooked ourselves. Jonathan kept us true to our original intentions and made sure that we didn’t drown them out by being didactic or unnecessarily expository. We are incredibly lucky to have had both of them working on this film.

8/ Both you and Miruna Coca-Cozma are signed under the movie as directors, which, in fact, eventuated as late as the shooting has begun... How did this happen?

Miruna and I went to high school together and have remained close friends over the years. We share the same values, the same understanding of social justice and of the ways in which art can contribute to making our world better. Working together on this came very naturally. When Miruna came on board right after the development phase, as co-director,  we knew each other enough to be fully aware that we would never be able to formally divide responsibilities (though we tried - there is a memo lost somewhere in time that represents our futile attempt at fixing our fluid relationship). We basically just took turns directing specific shoots and conducting interviews. Of course, we had our differences too, which ended up being quite productive: Miruna, thankfully, has more technical skills than I - she did some great shooting on the project, and set up the sound system, while I fretted over things like our relationships to the participants. She also has a more journalistic mind when approaching the documentary form. I, on the other hand, approach it more like a novel - a non-fiction novel, if you will. I think the project benefited a great deal from the need to forge a road between our two approaches.

9/ Your movie does a perfect job in capturing not only the universal problem of discrimination and segregation of minorities, but also the mutual prejudices of social majority and minority. Thanks to this universality, as well as certain portion of representativeness (the school as basic social experience), your film is very strong, communicating its contents well. Do you think this is key fact of its success?

Yes, I think viewers respond very strongly to both the specificity of the story and its universal aspects. The combination seems to be quite effective that way. And it still surprises us to see people in New York or Seoul moved by the story of these three kids in a Transylvanian town that doesn't even have as much as a railroad station. It is extremely rewarding to see how audiences from various corners of the world, with experiences that are often so different from those of the kids who participated in Our School, connect to this film.

10/ The segregation of minorities is a significant subject in the whole Europe, even in our country the Roma community and its segregation is very topical. Is your movie able help this issue in any specific ways?

We hope that this film will be used as a primary document to help policy-makers and activists in their work, and we intend to work another couple of years helping that along. We are already working with partners such as Amnesty International, the Roma Education Fund, the European Roma Rights Center, and the Open Society Institute, as well as national Roma rights and anti-discrimination NGOs to use the film to advance the understanding of race relations and education reform all around Europe. We are planning community screenings in places dealing with segregation, screenings in the European Parliament and in national legislatures, discussion guides for teachers and community organizers, and a good set of web resources that will extend the life of the film beyond the festival circuit and the cinemas.

11/ With your project Our School you participated at the East European Forum in 2006. Today, you are back in Jihlava with a finished movie which is, furthermore, nominated to the Silver Eye Award. How do you perceive this closing circle?

It’s a fantastic and humbling honor to be nominated for the Silver Eye Award. It is always great to come full circle - and in the case of Jihlava, even more so, because in many ways this was our proving ground. When we came to the pitching forum in 2006, we were very early on in the process: We knew our intentions, we had done a couple of shoots, but we barely knew our own project. The East European Forum was tremendously helpful in honing our focus, developing the best battle plan for the film, and gaining a confident footing early on. It also helped us start a community around the film: We formed relationships there that stayed with us throughout the life of the film, and we ended up getting feedback on multiple cuts from a number of fellow filmmakers whom we first met at the Forum. We wouldn’t have been able to come this far along without the Forum. Last, but not at all least, the Institute of Documentary Film, which does a fantastic job tracking Forum alumni and promoting Eastern European documentaries more generally, has done a great and relentless job of supporting our film over the years. We can only hope we did well by them.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Our School is the Opening Film of the Verzio Festival in Budapest



We are thrilled to announce that Our School will be opening the 8th Verzio International Human Rights Documentary Festival in Budapest, Hungary. It's not just a fantastic honor, but also a homecoming of sorts: Some of us used to live in Budapest while shooting the film, have many friends in the Roma rights movement there, and attended every edition of Verzio while we were there. The line-up was always outstanding.

The opening night screening will take place on November 8 - on the same day as the “National Roma Integration Strategies: Ensuring a Comprehensive and Effective European Approach” takes place in the European Parliament in Brussels as part of a process for developing EU-wide Roma integration policies. The 7 pm screening at the Toldi cinema in Budapest will be followed by a discussion moderated by the Chair of the Roma Education Fund. We will have a second screening there on Friday, November 11, at 6 pm, followed by a panel with Budapest-based Roma rights activists. 

We are very much looking forward to this!