Interview with Mona Nicoară
I saw Our School for the first time at the One World Romania documentary film festival in 2012. After the screening, there was a debate where Roma rights activists highlighted the disastrous effects of segregation and structural racism in the Romanian education system. The then-Minister of Education, Cătălin Baba, claimed that Our School was an isolated case which was not relevant for education in Romania. He said he would look into the matter and take all necessary action. But what happens when one case becomes endemic to the teaching reality of Romania, a reality which privileges those seen as “competent” while marginalizing those who, as a teacher in the film claims, are simply like that. It’s not that they can’t, it’s just the way they are! In Our School we are confronted with “compassionate racism”, the good intentions which cover a mountain of prejudice. Our School presents the route to the segregation of children from a Roma community which “benefits” from an EU-funded renovation of their school. When the renovation is complete, the children cannot attend because a European Court of Human Rights decision supports their integration in mixed schools. The children then return to their former school with condescending teachers who treat them like retards who have no idea that the grass is colored green because it is green. They are subsequently relocated to a special school for children with disabilities, even though the principal admits they have no disability. The final scene, where we see them trying to fit in, is the key-scene. Who is in fact responsible for the repeated and abusive disintegration and re-integration these children go through? How humiliating is the condition of the child who witnesses the prejudice-ridden kindness of the “benevolent” authorities on a daily basis? Whom do our schools belong to? (Mihaela Michailov)
How much has your experience as a human rights activist influenced your work on Our School?
The idea for the film originated in my personal frustration as an activist: in the past 20 years, I’ve seen hundreds of reports and strategies for Roma people that have changed little in our collective understanding of the issues the Roma are confronted with and of our role in solving them. I was hoping a different approach – a real, simple story, with people you get to know – could help us understand, at least on an individual level, the mechanisms and cures of discrimination. I’ve been working on human rights since 1992 and I’ve been up against the most alarming manifestations of racism: in Romania in the 90s we all witnessed a long series of conflicts in several communities – over 30 such conflicts (pogroms, to be more exact) were documented in those years. The most well-known was the one in Hădăreni, in 1993, when 4 people were killed and 14 houses belonging to Roma people were burned by the ethnic majority. This type of violence is less frequent nowadays, but what is highly common now is a type of “slow release violence”: forced evictions, environmental racism, increasing economic inequality, school segregation, stigmatization in the media and in public discourse, employment discrimination or lack of access to healthcare services. In the long run, the consequence is not the mere marginalization of a group of people who should benefit from equal rights, but also a shorter lifespan, an increase in child mortality rates and a loss of human capital which belongs to us all. […] I wanted to attempt a less abstract, institutional approach, by means of a small-scale, emotional story which was easy to follow. If a film is good, it’s a tool which could be used by those fighting to change the world or by those who control the mechanisms which could change it.
What changed in the community during the shooting and what changed in your perception of the community? What were you most interested in at the time you started documenting the case and how did your interest develop in the approach you took?
At first, I genuinely believed we would be following a successful process of integration, one that would make us see that “yes, we can.” In time, we found that in spite of the enthusiasm of the project, nobody in the community – including the local and educational administration – actually expected the integration process to work. It’s not about clear-cut opposition on the part of the majority – we expected that initially, especially since there were precedents in the US, Croatia and other European countries, and also in other cases of segregation in Romania. In Târgu Lăpuș, the ethnic Romanian parents were not surprised to see Roma children alongside their own – they also had Roma classmates when they were students. But the expectations of the teachers, of the administration, of the entire community, were so low! And this set the pace for the efforts to integrate, which was very slow. Some of them were even counterproductive: older Roma children were placed in a separate class where they were allegedly meant to catch up to the ethnic majority. But the teachers and the equipment were not a priority for the school and so the separate class had a sluggish pace, with the children being both ostracized and lacking the basic knowledge to allow subsequent integration. We realized that what was at stake for the storyline was the way in which the children were affected by this accumulation of factors – wrong decisions, unforeseen consequences, involuntary reflexes, mere carelessness and immobility. Many of these are not linked to a particular individual, a “guilty party”, but at the same time they are all a result of the way in which the members of the community understood their role and responsibility (or lack thereof) in the integration of Roma children.
Interview conducted by Mihaela Michailov