Thursday, June 30, 2011

We Got Our Variety Review Today...

...and it's  excellent! For those who cannot get behind the online paywall, here is the full text of the review, signed by Eddie Cockrell:
Exercising admirable restraint in its expose of ingrained racism in the Romanian educational system, absorbing docu Our School follows the sad yet resilient journey of three Roma children over four years as they grapple with prejudice and stereotyping. Unveiled at Tribeca before SilverDocs, where it won the Sterling Award for top nonfiction feature, even-keeled pic carries echoes of Michael Apted's groundbreaking Up series and should enjoy fest, tube and ancillary enrollments.

In 2006, 30 Romanian towns were given European funds to integrate their classrooms. In one of these, the northern Transyvlanian burg of Targu Lapus, the gung-ho mayor extolls the virtues of cooperation as he has the fire department deliver water to the outlying Roma families. Though the mayor's condescension is evident, 8-year-old Roma bundle of energy Alin Moldovan is more succinct: "You guessed it, Brainiac, I'm a gypsy."

The Roma children - who also include the more introspective Beniamin Lingurar, 12, and coltish Dana Vargana, 16 - are dutifully loaded on to a horse-drawn cart and brought to the town's school, even as renovations begin on the dilapidated Roma schoolhouse only steps from their encampment. What follows is systemic prejudice: The smooth school director offers facile explanations for the newcomers' steady isolation; the high-strung educator charged with conducting a remedial class laments her lot in life; and even the wife of the priest who employs Vargana to do housework talks down to her. A lone compassionate teacher and Alin's football chum are practically the only two Romanians on view who reach out to the kids.

Credit helmer Mona Nicoara with having the wisdom and fortitude to let the depth of the problem reveal itself naturally, correctly anticipating viewer outrage as the children are marginalized over time. Ovidiu Marginean's intuitive lensing favors steady and traditional framing, while gypsy punk combo Gogol Bordello's recent Break the Spell over the closing credits neatly sums up this tragic societal dilemma: "You love our music, but you hate our guts."
 Not too bad, eh?

You can find more reviews and press on Our School in the PRESS section of this site.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Grand Jury Prize for Our School at Silverdocs!

Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

We won the Sterling Award for Best US Feature at the Silverdocs festival today! It is a tremendous honor to receive the grand jury prize at such a prestigious festival - and we intend to leverage the life out of it! Thank you to Silverdocs for embracing our film, and to Silver Spring audiences for their warm,  enthusiastic response!

This is the motivation of the jury:

The cinematic quality of this film, the filmmaker's vision and the power of the story's core issue impressed the jury, revealing an intimate depiction of a marginalized and underrepresented community whose voice is seldom heard. 

The filmmaker brings to light a timely human rights issue with compassion and intimacy. With a unique point of view, we are given access to a legacy of discrimination and disenfranchisement that oppresses a community.

The film captures the mundane, humorous and joyous aspects of life, as well as practices that are harrowing and powerful and leave an undeniably memorable imprint on the viewer.

We were vaguely more articulate in the ceremony itself, but it basically boils down to this: Wow.

Our School's Premiere in Romania: Reflections

Standing ovation at the Transylvania International Film Festival. Photo credit Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

[This blog post was originally published on the Working Films blog. Our School is part of the Working Films Reel Education collaborative, an initiative bringing together filmmakers working on education with stakeholders and activists in the field.]

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 bracing for almost six years now.

We had shot the film in the 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 the small town of Targu Lapus. What we ended up with, after four years of production and two years of editing, is a paradigmatic story of hope, squandered opportunities, and infuriating cultural and institutional inertia.

And racism. Quite a bit of racism, some intentional, most merely reflexive, yet all of it profoundly familiar to all Romanians (ourselves, the filmmakers, included). Which 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 US, 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 participants themselves. The NGO partners were as nervous as we were about the premiere, and were additionally chomping at the bit to use the film for their own purposes. The participants 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 having had the time to absorb it, privately. The kids had also never been to the cinema before, so they were extra nervous on that account. 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 advance press was luke-warm - 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 had. The online comments to the advance press coverage were an entirely different matter: Coming exclusively from people who had not seen the film but were assuming that no film on Roma would ever help , they contained violent threats and personal attacks against the filmmaking team for “destroying Romania’s image abroad.” We assumed they came from people who had too much time on their hands, but we were also 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 fact that the great folk at the Transylvania International Film Festival programmed us in the largest cinema they had: 750 seats. We worried that the seats would remain empty, then we worried that they would be filled with people who do not like what they seen on the screen.

Basically, we worried about everything.

Whatever worries we had were dispersed in the first five minutes of the screening. The huge audience laughed loudly at even the smallest, almost private, jokes in the film. They started clapping 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 us 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 of the Romanian friends they managed to make, despite all odds, along the way. The audience had connected to the kids, had managed to see themselves in our film, without defensiveness or rancor, and had found ways to process and understand what they could change in themselves by the time the credits stopped rolling.

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 after was no less enthusiastic. A journalist confessed to 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 ourselves. 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 experience, and moved by the presence of the children in the room. But having an initial reaction like this from hundreds of people gives us hope for what this film can do. It gives us hope that the film can do the job we always intended for it: 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

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Useful Experiment in Ireland

The "losers" of the social experiment at Guth Gafa. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

The delightful Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival in the village Gortahork in north-western Ireland devised an experiment meant to awaken in Our School's audience members a visceral understanding of what our protagonists' life looks like on a daily basis:

Before the second screening of Our School at Guth Gafa, festival staffer Paul Bonar and his drama students conducted a social experiment in discrimination which divided the audience members of into two groups: privileged guests and underprivileged ones. The division was random, based on color-coded tickets basically drawn from a hat. The privileged were greeted by name, shown first into the cinema, and given treats. The less fortunate had to wait outside and were called in as numbers, and sat in the back of the screening venue, with no treats. The venue was small, so everyone was able to see, but the point was made. It worked: The audience was quite engaged, and the Q&As went long and in-depth. Guth Gafa is a truly special festival that way.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Standing Ovation at the Transylvania Film Fest

Dana watching herself on a big screen. Photo credit: Nicu Cherchiu (c) Transylvania International Film Festival

We had a fantastic premiere at the Transylvania International Film Festival. The festival organizers put is in the largest cinema in Cluj - a daunting 750 seats. The kids - Alin, Beni and Dana - had never been in a cinema before. They ran around the huge, state-of-the-art cinema during the tech check and just owned the place, welcoming the large audience as they started to pour in.

The energy in the room was incredible: The audience laughed and clapped at almost every line, and, when the lights went up and we all went up in front of the screen, they gave a long, heartfelt standing ovation to the kids and the filmmaking team. Alin turned to us during the standing ovation and incredulously asked: "Are all these guys Romanian?"

Dana confidently started the Q&A by thanking the audience for coming and saying: "I'm very happy for you that you liked the film." Beni's father thanked the audience for looking at the kids' story without the filters of stereotype and pre-concieved notions, with what he called "the heart's eyes."

A short amateur video put by an audience member online gives you a flavor of the event:

A gallery of great photos taken by Nicu Cherciu can be found on the TIFF site here. We'll be able to also share videos from TIFF in the near future. The support we received from the festival was incredible, and we are tremendously grateful for every single person who worked to make this premiere a success - from the great programming and promotion teams to volunteer Magda Grama and our heroic driver "Mr. Ovidiu."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Our Very Special Screenings in Targu Lapus

Alin and his family watching Our School for the first time. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film LLC
Before we have our special screening at the Transylvania International Film Festival, we had to have an even more special Romanian premiere: Showing the people with whom we worked for over four years the final festival version of Our School.

It's always a nerve-wrecking experience to do that and, luckily, we could do it as a team this time - which really means that we brought our editor, Erin Casper, along to Targu Lapus. She had been living with the footage of these children for nearly two years now, getting to know pretty well, despite the fact that she had never met them in real life. The kids, on their part, knew in theory about Erin's existence (we mentioned her to them the last few times we were there), but it was hard for them to imagine both the process and the flesh-and-blood person of the editor. In short, everyone was nervous.

The first sign of relief came during the screening we had for the school director, in his office. He was impressed with the quality of the film - seeing us come back for so many years had made him doubt that we knew what we were doing, or whether we we would ever finish the film. And he generously said that this is an essential film for Romanian education, and should be shown in schools and to teachers around the country.
Alin's family was next. The picture above says it all, really. We found them tending cows on a hillside for the summer, in makeshift tents with no water or electricity, let alone a TV with a DVD player. Hence the improvised screening on Erin's laptop. (I'm sure there's a funny Apple commercial somewhere in there, but this was too emotional and wondrous a moment to bother with it.) Alin and his family laughed and talked throughout the film. Part home video and part therapeutic stock-taking operation for them, the documentary worked as a validation of who they are, a recognition of their intrinsic value. Alin was very moved and quiet at the end. Alin's father was lost in thoughts. He asked us: "What do we have to say at the festival in Cluj?" "Just answer the questions, whatever the audience asks you," we said. "I'll only tell them one thing: 'What you see, in this film, really happened.'"

We're billed as a "special screening" at the Transylvania International Film Festival. We're sure it's going to be special. But this was even more special.