Saturday, June 25, 2011

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