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Our School explores the dynamics and realities at play in trying to get Roma kids integrated into the mainstream school system in Romania.
(Romania) "Gypsy, Gypsy, Gypsy! Roma! They kept yelling, so I said you guessed it brainiac I'm a gypsy, fine, "said Alin, an 8 year old Roma kid at the start of the documentary, Our School.
In 2006 filmmakers Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma began their 4 year documentation of a European Union initiative in the small town of Targu Lapus in Romania. The initiative was part of a EU project that would see thirty towns in Romania receive funding in exchange for a promise to integrate their schools. Roma "Gypsy" children have been segregated in inferior schools for generations. Roma (also derogatorily known as "Gypsies") are Europe's largest and most oppressed ethnic minority.
Against a backdrop of the demolished remains of the old school in Deliu, a Roma settlement, the Mayor of Targu Lapus welcomes the independent film crew to document the process of a new school being built and proclaiming how he believes in the principle of Roma and Romanians "together in school and life."
Told mainly through the perspectives of three young Roma children, Alin, Beni and Dana, Our School explores the dynamics and realities at play in trying to get Roma kids integrated into the mainstream school system in Romania.
You could never accuse Alin of being a lazy kid, he seems blessed with unlimited energy, a curiosity about his surroundings and even give his substandard education ( in his own words he tells how he has been to four schools and that the last one had gone to the dogs) he comes across as a naturally bright kid. He also a confidence and cute swagger about him that belies his humble upbringing. Beni is four years older than Alin, he is more reserved, shy, more softly spoken. While Dana is the oldest of the trio, more fun loving, with a carefree cheerful nature.
As the old Roma school is being rebuilt the Roma children have to go to the main town school. You can really see their enthusiasm, particularly of Alin and Beni, at the prospect of being able to mix with Romanian kids and this is one of the recurring themes in the documentary. How the Roma kids want the chance to be around and interact with the Romanian kids.
And so the kids make the 4 kilometers trip to school, most of them on the back of a horse and cart. No bus service is provided, having to get up extra early. Alin explained, without a hint of grievance and a smile, how he would wash with cold water at 1am in preparation for the school.
At the school most of the Roma kids get the opportunity to feel included into a wider society and not just spend time with other Romas. You can see this is a big thing and something they relish even though in class they are typically forced to sit at the back and have to deal with taunts and looks. But some of the Roma kids don't even get that opportunity at the outset as are placed in a separate remedial class. The teacher of the remedial class when she is interviewed says things such as "they have violence in their blood" and other disparaging comments. She also seems to constantly pick on a Roma kid called Elisabeta, who she seems to blame for everything. When the remedial class teacher quits she is replaced by a teacher Floarea Stratu who is the opposite full of real humanity for her class. There is a really moving moment when she explains about what it means to her in helping kids with so little and interacting with Elisabeta. Add to the equation another able and humane teacher Rodica Ungur who has no problem teaching two standards of students in her class, the Romanian kids and the Roma kids, dividing her time equally and setting out different goals. She even ventures to Deliu, even though she admits to being scared having not been there before, to check on Roma kids who have missed school.
And so there is brief snapshot of what life could be like and a positive way forward for the Roma kids and hope for future generations. But then it becomes apparent that the old ugly default is rearing its head. The writing in on the wall for the big shiny new school that is nearing completion and on its way to becoming a massive white elephant already. The newly built school can not operate as a Roma only functioning school which would be unlawful and even though the town is obliged to keep the Roma students integrated in the main school they find a way not to by moving them to a special needs school.
And so Alin and Beni and the others who were so happy making new friends, like with an extremely cool and unprejudiced Romanian kid called Boga, and him with them, for the teachers who were fantastic and really making a difference, in Targu Lapus anyway it was back to how it has always been, segregation and exclusion.
For the school director Ovidiu Boga, who is still following a social Darwinism myth, its simple: " it is natural selection...only those with a calling others will naturally get lost along the way because they come from an environment which lures them into dropping out and a tribal life.
Throughout Europe large numbers of Roma children study in segregated schools and classes or in special schools with children of disabilities.
First published on Just A Platform, an international cultural website.
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