Monday, November 28, 2011

Breaking the Spell: An Interview with Mona Nicoara

Mona Nicoara photo reproduced from - 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.