[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: