On the Way to School (2008)
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"On the Way to School" is about the uncanny encounter between a recently graduated young teacher from an Aegean city of Turkey and his students of Kurdish ethnicity living in a remote village on the South-East of the country. As the official language of instruction is Turkish and the majority of the students speak only their Kurdish mother-tongue, the hardship of lack of proper communication in the class environment becomes ironically, their only common experience—very telling of the cultural alienation between South-East and West, the rural and the urban, the poor and the industrialized, the social reality and the official political picture of life in the Republic of Turkey.
(***spoilerish info ahead***) Since many non-Kurdish rural parts of Turkey share the same, if not worse, economic underdevelopment, the documentary does a good job of avoiding over-didactic delivery of identity politics and maintains instead a fine balance between the alienation of the young teacher and the alienation of the Kurdish-speaking students. The young teacher has no nationalistic ideological sentiment to act upon, but the pragmatic necessity to keep the language Turkish during class hours wears him out. He is open about having prepared himself for some cultural and economical gap between his reality and that of the people in the village, but also that his experience even surpassed that. The students show no deliberate resistance to moving on with the Turkish curriculum, but neither the Turkish language nor what it symbolically represents (the cultural ideal of the state) corresponds with their experience of everyday life.
One of the most memorable moments of the documentary is the after-dinner dialogue in the house of one of the locals, who tells the young teacher about the sardonic reaction he was given for having once stated Turkish as his second language on a job application form. Another is about the awkward feel of April 23 festivities -National Independence and Children's Day- an official day of celebration which feels like a beautiful but rather sad utopia for children of background laden with vast economic differences and language barrier. (***end of spoilers***)
Overall, "On the Way to School" is one decent documentary about issues of education, communication, difference and identity. It is aesthetically pleasing, culturally informative and politically thought-provoking sans blatant didacticism, ideological polemics or stereotypical characters.
Orhan Eskiköy and Özgür Doğan's film explains why. An idealistic young educator Emre comes from Denizli in the west of Turkey to the village of Demirci in the east. This is a predominantly rural community whose inhabitants eke out an existence in an inhospitable landscape by tending sheep or growing wheat. They live a very self- contained life under primitive conditions; most of the mud-brick houses lack running water, and the women mostly use local produce to create their meals. Few of them can either read or write; hitherto they have had very little need to.
Entering this community and trying to teach the learners represents a difficult, if not impossible task. The children seldom actually come to school; and when Emre encourages them to do so, he finds it almost impossible to communicate with them. They know very little Turkish, having only heard a few words on television; in turn, Emre speaks no Kurdish. Hence they are all imprisoned by their respective languages. The children might repeat the familiar phrase "Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene" (Happy is he who is a Turk), but they have no understanding of what it means. On the celebrations for Children's Day (23 April), a holiday instituted by Atatürk both to reward children and remind them of the importance of Republican values, the children play games and mouth the phrases they are supposed to do, but the significance of the occasion eludes them. Try as he might, Emre finds that progress in class is slow, often impossible.
Having said that, he is not without his faults. There is little indication of his being prepared to meet the children halfway and learn some Kurdish during his time at the school; and some of his pedagogical methods leave a lot to be desired. Merely shouting at the children and/or intimidating them by making them repeat phrases over and over again is hardly conductive to creating a good learning environment. On the other hand he is a new teacher with little grasp of effective classroom technique, so perhaps we can exonerate him.
The documentary takes place over a year, from September to June. The directors make much of the changing landscapes from the hot sun of late summer to autumn colors, a harsh winter with snow whipping across the barren landscape, and the onset of spring with a duck leading her ducklings across the farm. They emphasize the unchanging nature of life in Demirci, whose citizens pursue a life that remains immune from any of the major urban and social developments taking place in the west of the country. In this kind of situation, it's hardly likely that anyone would respect the Ministry's desire for a Turkish-only school.
Since the film was made, the government apparently made some moves towards a more multicultural education policy by permitting some lessons to be given in Kurdish. In light of current events, however, where renewed conflicts have broken out in the east of the country between the security forces and the local people, we might wonder whether such initiatives have any real chance of taking root, or whether the east will remain the cultural and educational backwater as represented in this film.