Saturday, December 3, 2011

Screening for Romania's National Day at Lincoln Center

On Romania's National Day, December 1st we had a an excellent screening in the 6th Romanian Romanian Film Festival in New York City. It was a perfect time to think through issues of national unity, the value of diversity, and what giving a better chance to Roma children means for Romania as a whole. It was truly moving to connect with the large audience assembled at the Walter Reade Theater, and to get another chance to answer the smart questions of tough New Yorkers - whether they be teachers, filmmakers, Roma or Romanians.

We are very grateful to the organizers of the festival - the Lincoln Center Film Society, the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, and the Transylvania Film Festival - for making this possible, and to the wonderful Scott Foundas for his thoughtful and gentle work as moderator. You can see the Q&A session with Director Mona Nicoara and Editor Erin Casper below: 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter Festivals Update

Snow in Targu Lapus, Christmas Day 2006. Image credit: Miruna Coca-Cozma (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
Here are our festival and film series listings for this winter: 

Romanian Film Festival at the Lincoln Center Film Society, November 30-December 6, New York, USA
This Human World, December 1-10, Vienna, Austria
Documentarist: Which Human Rights?, December 7-10, Istanbul, Turkey
WATCH DOCS: Human Rights in Film, December 8-18, Warsaw, Poland
Trieste Film Festival, January 19-25, Trieste, Italy
Journées de Soleure, January 19-26, Soleure, Switzerland
Étoiles francophones, January 31-February 7, Paris, France
DocYard screening series, February 6, Boston, USA

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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Our School is the Opening Film of the Verzio Festival in Budapest

We are thrilled to announce that Our School will be opening the 8th Verzio International Human Rights Documentary Festival in Budapest, Hungary. It's not just a fantastic honor, but also a homecoming of sorts: Some of us used to live in Budapest while shooting the film, have many friends in the Roma rights movement there, and attended every edition of Verzio while we were there. The line-up was always outstanding.

The opening night screening will take place on November 8 - on the same day as the “National Roma Integration Strategies: Ensuring a Comprehensive and Effective European Approach” takes place in the European Parliament in Brussels as part of a process for developing EU-wide Roma integration policies. The 7 pm screening at the Toldi cinema in Budapest will be followed by a discussion moderated by the Chair of the Roma Education Fund. We will have a second screening there on Friday, November 11, at 6 pm, followed by a panel with Budapest-based Roma rights activists. 

We are very much looking forward to this! 

Monday, September 26, 2011

Our School Nominated for a Silver Eye Award

The Silver Eye Award for Best European Documentary Film, established in 2009. Image: IDF

We are very honored that Our School was nominated for a Silver Eye Award for the best feature-length East European documentary film to come out in 2011. The award winners, selected by an international jury of industry professionals, will be announced during the closing ceremony of the 15th Jihlava International Documentary Festival on October 29th. We're looking forward to coming back to Jihlava - that's were we first pitched the film project, back in 2006. And this is as good a time as ever to thank the lovely people at the Institute of Documentary Film, who have been supporting Our School in ways big and small for the past five years!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Fall Festivals Update

Fall in Targu Lapus. Photo credit: Miruna Coca-Cozma (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

We have an awfully long list of festivals coming up this fall:
Noaptea Alba a Filmului Romanesc, September 16, Bucharest, Romania
Camden International Film Festival, September 29-October 2, Camden, ME, USA
DokLeipzig, October 17-23, Leipzig, Germany
Document 9 International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival, October 20-23, Glasgow, Scotland
United Nations Association Film Festival, October 21-30, Palo Alto & San Francisco, CA, USA
Inconvenient Films, October 20-30,  Vilnius, Lithuania
Astra, October 25-30, Sibiu, Romania
CPH:DOX, November 3-13, Copenhagen, Denmark
Verzio, November 8-13, Budapest, Hungary (opening film)
Lone Star International Film Festival, November 9-13, Fort Worth, TX, USA
DocEst, November 14-19, Iasi, Romania
European Pro Bono Forum, November 18, Berlin, Germany
One World Slovakia, November 29-December 3, Bratislava, Slovakia

This season will be our busiest yet. We're thrilled to have the chance to present the film before such a broad range of audiences, in so many countries.

Monday, September 12, 2011

First Screening in Bucharest for Our School

On September 16, 2011, we will be part of the White Night of Romanian Film, an all-night movie marathon organized in five cities in Romania. Our School will be screened at 9 pm in courtyard of the oldest historical building in Bucharest. This will be our first screening in Bucharest. We won't be there for this particular occasion, but it's thrilling to know that so many of our supporters and patient audience members in Bucharest will finally get to see the film.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Our School at EDIF Fest in Seoul

Shot of our title screen in Seoul. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

We spent a few days a the EBS International Documentary Festival in Seoul, South Korea. We went there unsure of what to expect and quite curious about how Korean audiences will react to a story for which they may not have any context. 

Well, they may not have any experience with Roma or segregation - but they sure had plenty of background information and interest in the issue. We had two screenings, followed by some of the longest and most complex Q&As we've ever had. Korean audiences surely know how to ask the most interesting, bluntest questions! It certainly helped turn the event into a genuine opportunity to explore the reasons and intricacies behind making a longitudinal project like Our School, and we are very grateful for that opportunity. The EIDF blog has a lovely-looking Korean-language summary of one of our Q&As here.

We're also extremely happy that so many teachers showed up for our screenings, and even wrote about the film on their blogs. This is a function of EBS adding a new section to the festival, dedicated exclusively to education. It is a brilliant idea, if we may say so ourselves - and it clearly feeds into both an existing audience and EBS's core mission as a public broadcaster.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Magic of FânFest in Roșia Montană

Our School's audience at FânFest Roșia Montană. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

We had an incredible screening last night at FânFest Roșia Montană. Full house, with folks standing along the walls and sitting on the floor, shaking the windows with their laughter. Wonderful Q&A. This is an audience interested in social change, in using Romania's human capital and national wealth responsibly, and in making the right choices for future generations.

FânFest Roșia Montană was set up to build public awareness against a surface mining project that would strip the mountains surrounding this valley with cyanide to extract gold and silver and would displace the entire community of Roșia Montană. The area has been mined for gold for millenia - long before the Romans came to make Transylvania part of their empire. There are now over 150 kilometers of Roman and pre-Roman mining galleries, which are slated to be listed in the UNESCO World Heritage. But the mining project proposed by the the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation would do away with the historic galleries and, indeed, with a few whole mountains around the small town of the Roșia Montană. Over the past 10 years, the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation bought land, houses, and even graves from the locals, relocating living families and human remains, and allowing old houses now in the property of the corporation to deteriorate - promising to renovate the historic monuments and build a tourist dystopia at the foot of the cyanide-stripped mountains only if the mining project goes ahead. While some locals have sold their properties to the Roșia Montană Gold Corporation, many oppose the mining project and refuse to sell - and they are supported by vibrant Romanian NGOs, opinion leaders and international groups like Greenpeace. 

Sign saying "This property is NOT for sale" in  Roșia Montană. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
Just being there was incredibly moving. It was partly personal: Most of Director-Producer Mona Nicoară's family comes different mining villages within 30 kilometers of Roșia. But it was also an extraordinary chance to connect with some of the most engaged young people in the country. We'll definitely be back: Mona Nicoară was made an offer she couldn't refuse - she was asked to program the film section of next year's FânFest.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Lovely DokuFest in Kosovo

The open-air cinema straddling the river in Prizren. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

We had a great time at the wonderfully programmed DokuFest in historical town of Prizren in Kosovo. We had the chance to screen in a whimsical open-air theater straddling the river, as well as in an old cinema whose preservation was the original impulse behind founding DokuFest. The festival lived up to its reputation: A warm community of documentary filmmakers led by programmer Veton Nurkollari, great movies and great music concerts, and all-night discussions fueled by macchiatos, kebabs and raki in the center of town. 
European youth platform Spartak caught one of our  DokuFest screenings and wrote the following about Our School:

"Stays very close to all people involved and shows the growing pains, adaptation troubles, discrimination and efforts in a beautiful way. The interviewed children keep that (often hilarious and/or touching) honesty about their hopes and dreams and the camera catches all. Sometimes it reminded me a bit of Être et avoir, the celebrated portrait of a French peripheral town school. Our School is a truly amazing and complete portrait of small-town, peripheral Romania, (Roma) children from puberty to adulthood and the efforts of parents and teachers to get education for the kids. Highly recommended."

In an overview of DokuFest on the Scottish Doc Institute's blog, Sonja Henrici noted that Our School is

"a subtle film [which] denies us the more common journey towards 'hope,' but shows the systemic inability in people’s hearts and minds to embrace difference, and the emotional and psychological effects it has on the Roma children who cannot even begin to consider to celebrate their 'diversity.'"
Thank you, DokuFest!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Our School Screening in the US Congress

Two short days after winning the Sterling Award for Best US Feature at the Silverdocs film festival, in Silver Spring, MD, we had to come back to the Washington, DC, area for a screening of Our School in the United States Congress. It is hard to imagine a much greater honor, or a bigger chance to present to American policymakers the Europe-wide issue of segregated education for Roma children. 

The US Helsinki Commission, which has a long record of addressing Roma issues, graciously hosted the screening. Producer-Director Mona Nicoara joined Chair of the Roma Education Fund Costel Bercus and Mr Serban Brebenel of the Romanian Embassy in a long discussion, an hour-long fragment of which you can see in the YouTube clip embedded above. Do not be fooled by the static camera - this was an engaging discussion, which included representatives of the State Department, USAID, US Congress staffers, Roma activists, as well a organizations with a long track record of working on Roma issues in Europe. 

An understanding emerged that folks working on education, human rights, as well as disability right need to better coordinate their efforts on the issue, and that Roma rights, and education in particular, need to become a priority for US foreign policy makers. 

For Our School, this was the first, but by no means the last, such advocacy screening. We are planning similar events at the State Department in the US, the European Parliament, and before national decision-makers in select European countries. 

[We are tremendously grateful to Ms Erika Schlager of the US Helsinki Commission for making this event possible.]

Thursday, June 30, 2011

We Got Our Variety Review Today...

...and it's  excellent! For those who cannot get behind the online paywall, here is the full text of the review, signed by Eddie Cockrell:
Exercising admirable restraint in its expose of ingrained racism in the Romanian educational system, absorbing docu Our School follows the sad yet resilient journey of three Roma children over four years as they grapple with prejudice and stereotyping. Unveiled at Tribeca before SilverDocs, where it won the Sterling Award for top nonfiction feature, even-keeled pic carries echoes of Michael Apted's groundbreaking Up series and should enjoy fest, tube and ancillary enrollments.

In 2006, 30 Romanian towns were given European funds to integrate their classrooms. In one of these, the northern Transyvlanian burg of Targu Lapus, the gung-ho mayor extolls the virtues of cooperation as he has the fire department deliver water to the outlying Roma families. Though the mayor's condescension is evident, 8-year-old Roma bundle of energy Alin Moldovan is more succinct: "You guessed it, Brainiac, I'm a gypsy."

The Roma children - who also include the more introspective Beniamin Lingurar, 12, and coltish Dana Vargana, 16 - are dutifully loaded on to a horse-drawn cart and brought to the town's school, even as renovations begin on the dilapidated Roma schoolhouse only steps from their encampment. What follows is systemic prejudice: The smooth school director offers facile explanations for the newcomers' steady isolation; the high-strung educator charged with conducting a remedial class laments her lot in life; and even the wife of the priest who employs Vargana to do housework talks down to her. A lone compassionate teacher and Alin's football chum are practically the only two Romanians on view who reach out to the kids.

Credit helmer Mona Nicoara with having the wisdom and fortitude to let the depth of the problem reveal itself naturally, correctly anticipating viewer outrage as the children are marginalized over time. Ovidiu Marginean's intuitive lensing favors steady and traditional framing, while gypsy punk combo Gogol Bordello's recent Break the Spell over the closing credits neatly sums up this tragic societal dilemma: "You love our music, but you hate our guts."
 Not too bad, eh?

You can find more reviews and press on Our School in the PRESS section of this site.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Grand Jury Prize for Our School at Silverdocs!

Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

We won the Sterling Award for Best US Feature at the Silverdocs festival today! It is a tremendous honor to receive the grand jury prize at such a prestigious festival - and we intend to leverage the life out of it! Thank you to Silverdocs for embracing our film, and to Silver Spring audiences for their warm,  enthusiastic response!

This is the motivation of the jury:

The cinematic quality of this film, the filmmaker's vision and the power of the story's core issue impressed the jury, revealing an intimate depiction of a marginalized and underrepresented community whose voice is seldom heard. 

The filmmaker brings to light a timely human rights issue with compassion and intimacy. With a unique point of view, we are given access to a legacy of discrimination and disenfranchisement that oppresses a community.

The film captures the mundane, humorous and joyous aspects of life, as well as practices that are harrowing and powerful and leave an undeniably memorable imprint on the viewer.

We were vaguely more articulate in the ceremony itself, but it basically boils down to this: Wow.

Our School's Premiere in Romania: Reflections

Standing ovation at the Transylvania International Film Festival. Photo credit Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

[This blog post was originally published on the Working Films blog. Our School is part of the Working Films Reel Education collaborative, an initiative bringing together filmmakers working on education with stakeholders and activists in the field.]

After starting in festivals in Europe and the US, Our School finally had its premiere in Romania - a homecoming of sorts for the film, and an event that we have been bracing for almost six years now.

We had shot the film in the small town in Transylvania, a very real place in Northern Romania. Our intention was to begin to understand and hopefully improve race relations between majority Romanians and the Roma ethnic minority by showing under a magnifying glass the story of three spirited Roma children involved in a school integration project in the small town of Targu Lapus. What we ended up with, after four years of production and two years of editing, is a paradigmatic story of hope, squandered opportunities, and infuriating cultural and institutional inertia.

And racism. Quite a bit of racism, some intentional, most merely reflexive, yet all of it profoundly familiar to all Romanians (ourselves, the filmmakers, included). Which is precisely why we were bracing so hard, and for so long, for the Romanian premiere. We knew that in Romania, even more than in other places in Europe or the US, Our School would be holding a mirror up to its audience - an unflattering one, at that. And there are few things as counter-productive and virulent as unexamined, defensive racism.

We did what we could to prepare for the premiere - in terms of press, NGO partners on the ground, and the participants themselves. The NGO partners were as nervous as we were about the premiere, and were additionally chomping at the bit to use the film for their own purposes. The participants got to see the film, on their own terms, before the festival premiere, on the principle that it is cruel and unusual treatment to see your own story projected on a very large screen, with a large audience, before having had the time to absorb it, privately. The kids had also never been to the cinema before, so they were extra nervous on that account. Our youngest participant, Alin, helped to lighten the mood by eating three ice-creams in rapid succession and contently throwing up right before the screening.

The advance press was luke-warm - understandably, since they had not seen the film, and the international success of the new Romanian cinema over past ten years has made  them unimpressed with projects with the kind of international festival success that Our School had. The online comments to the advance press coverage were an entirely different matter: Coming exclusively from people who had not seen the film but were assuming that no film on Roma would ever help , they contained violent threats and personal attacks against the filmmaking team for “destroying Romania’s image abroad.” We assumed they came from people who had too much time on their hands, but we were also put on notice: Our School had the potential of generating a strong backlash, and that was the last thing we wanted to happen.

Matters were not helped much by the fact that the great folk at the Transylvania International Film Festival programmed us in the largest cinema they had: 750 seats. We worried that the seats would remain empty, then we worried that they would be filled with people who do not like what they seen on the screen.

Basically, we worried about everything.

Whatever worries we had were dispersed in the first five minutes of the screening. The huge audience laughed loudly at even the smallest, almost private, jokes in the film. They started clapping after particularly poignant lines, making the projectionist worried that they would not hear the soundtrack. They started sniffling, visibly moved towards the end. And, when the credits ended and we all lined up on the stage, we found them giving the children a standing ovation. For five whole minutes.

Alin turned to us and whispered: “Are all of these guys Romanian?” Yes, they were. And they were applauding the courage, resilience, spirit and sass of Alin, Dana, Beni - and of the Romanian friends they managed to make, despite all odds, along the way. The audience had connected to the kids, had managed to see themselves in our film, without defensiveness or rancor, and had found ways to process and understand what they could change in themselves by the time the credits stopped rolling.

A teacher confessed to treating her Roma students as inferior - I wanted to put her in touch with the New York teacher who confessed during our Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival that she had been tracking immigrant children in special education programs because she herself lacked support and know-how to integrate them. A local mentioned a case of segregation next door to the screening venue - an activist invited the audience to investigate the case, right then and there. A journalist mused about what the Ministry of Education should do with the film - we referred him to the principal in Our School, who despite an awareness that the film showed him in a light that was “a little too true” (his words), ended up generously saying that it is an extraordinary tool that should be used to train and inform people not only in Romania, but abroad.

There were also hugs - lots of them. Alin, Beni, and Dana said that they were treated, for that one night, better than they had been treated, cumulatively, their entire life.

The press reaction that came after was no less enthusiastic. A journalist confessed to an allergy to issue films and declared herself not only surprised, but cured. An editorial talked about how Our School is not only a film about Roma, it is a film about ourselves. A reputed blog said the audience had come in with fixed ideas and had come out with the urge to apologize to Roma children on behalf  of all Romanians.

We know this was an ideal audience in many ways - progressive, trained by ten years of challenging festival experience, and moved by the presence of the children in the room. But having an initial reaction like this from hundreds of people gives us hope for what this film can do. It gives us hope that the film can do the job we always intended for it: Point to a systemic problem, make us understand it in the most direct, human way, and do the hardest things of all - change hearts and minds and open up a some hope for the future

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Useful Experiment in Ireland

The "losers" of the social experiment at Guth Gafa. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

The delightful Guth Gafa International Documentary Festival in the village Gortahork in north-western Ireland devised an experiment meant to awaken in Our School's audience members a visceral understanding of what our protagonists' life looks like on a daily basis:

Before the second screening of Our School at Guth Gafa, festival staffer Paul Bonar and his drama students conducted a social experiment in discrimination which divided the audience members of into two groups: privileged guests and underprivileged ones. The division was random, based on color-coded tickets basically drawn from a hat. The privileged were greeted by name, shown first into the cinema, and given treats. The less fortunate had to wait outside and were called in as numbers, and sat in the back of the screening venue, with no treats. The venue was small, so everyone was able to see, but the point was made. It worked: The audience was quite engaged, and the Q&As went long and in-depth. Guth Gafa is a truly special festival that way.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Standing Ovation at the Transylvania Film Fest

Dana watching herself on a big screen. Photo credit: Nicu Cherchiu (c) Transylvania International Film Festival

We had a fantastic premiere at the Transylvania International Film Festival. The festival organizers put is in the largest cinema in Cluj - a daunting 750 seats. The kids - Alin, Beni and Dana - had never been in a cinema before. They ran around the huge, state-of-the-art cinema during the tech check and just owned the place, welcoming the large audience as they started to pour in.

The energy in the room was incredible: The audience laughed and clapped at almost every line, and, when the lights went up and we all went up in front of the screen, they gave a long, heartfelt standing ovation to the kids and the filmmaking team. Alin turned to us during the standing ovation and incredulously asked: "Are all these guys Romanian?"

Dana confidently started the Q&A by thanking the audience for coming and saying: "I'm very happy for you that you liked the film." Beni's father thanked the audience for looking at the kids' story without the filters of stereotype and pre-concieved notions, with what he called "the heart's eyes."

A short amateur video put by an audience member online gives you a flavor of the event:

A gallery of great photos taken by Nicu Cherciu can be found on the TIFF site here. We'll be able to also share videos from TIFF in the near future. The support we received from the festival was incredible, and we are tremendously grateful for every single person who worked to make this premiere a success - from the great programming and promotion teams to volunteer Magda Grama and our heroic driver "Mr. Ovidiu."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Our Very Special Screenings in Targu Lapus

Alin and his family watching Our School for the first time. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film LLC
Before we have our special screening at the Transylvania International Film Festival, we had to have an even more special Romanian premiere: Showing the people with whom we worked for over four years the final festival version of Our School.

It's always a nerve-wrecking experience to do that and, luckily, we could do it as a team this time - which really means that we brought our editor, Erin Casper, along to Targu Lapus. She had been living with the footage of these children for nearly two years now, getting to know pretty well, despite the fact that she had never met them in real life. The kids, on their part, knew in theory about Erin's existence (we mentioned her to them the last few times we were there), but it was hard for them to imagine both the process and the flesh-and-blood person of the editor. In short, everyone was nervous.

The first sign of relief came during the screening we had for the school director, in his office. He was impressed with the quality of the film - seeing us come back for so many years had made him doubt that we knew what we were doing, or whether we we would ever finish the film. And he generously said that this is an essential film for Romanian education, and should be shown in schools and to teachers around the country.
Alin's family was next. The picture above says it all, really. We found them tending cows on a hillside for the summer, in makeshift tents with no water or electricity, let alone a TV with a DVD player. Hence the improvised screening on Erin's laptop. (I'm sure there's a funny Apple commercial somewhere in there, but this was too emotional and wondrous a moment to bother with it.) Alin and his family laughed and talked throughout the film. Part home video and part therapeutic stock-taking operation for them, the documentary worked as a validation of who they are, a recognition of their intrinsic value. Alin was very moved and quiet at the end. Alin's father was lost in thoughts. He asked us: "What do we have to say at the festival in Cluj?" "Just answer the questions, whatever the audience asks you," we said. "I'll only tell them one thing: 'What you see, in this film, really happened.'"

We're billed as a "special screening" at the Transylvania International Film Festival. We're sure it's going to be special. But this was even more special.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Summer Festivals Update

                                   Elisabeta herding cows. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
Summer is usually a slower film festival season, but we have a fantastic list of festivals lined up in the coming months, starting with our much anticipated Romanian premiere:

Transylvania International Film Festival, June 3-12, Cluj, Romania
Guth Gafa, June 10-14, Gortahork, Ireland
Silverdocs, June 20-26, Silver Spring, MD, USA
DokuFest, July 23-31, Prizren, Kosovo
FânFest, August 12-14, Rosia Montana, Romania
EBS International Documentary Festival, August 19-25, Seoul, South Korea

We'll try to keep everyone updated from the road, here and on our facebook page.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Our School Sold Out at Tribeca

The rush tickets line for Our School at the Tribeca Film Festival. Photo credit: Mona Nicoara (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

New Yorkers have plenty of practice standing on line - for restaurants, for their morning coffee, and, of course, for movies. Still, it was a fantastic surprise to see them lining up to see Our School. We knew that our screenings sold out in advance, in the very first days of their going on sale online to American Express cardholders. But the anticipation went well beyond that: Folks on the line got angry to see the filmmaking team use their passes to get into our own screening (like everyone else, New Yorkers can get unreasonable when left standing for long periods of time). Other folks posted ads for Our School tickets on Craigslist. We felt bad that not everyone who wanted to see the film could see it - but we're grateful for the interest, and sure that there will be more opportunities to screen in New York in the future.

It's no news that New York offers some of the smartest, most opinionated and most engaged festival audiences. It's a joy - and a workout! - to present the film before them and answer their questions. And the outpouring of emotion adds an extra layer of difficulty. We had teachers spontaneously confess to streaming minority and immigrant children into special education programs - right here in the Big Apple. We had visual artists and poets visibly moved by the story of Alin, Beni and Dana. We had policy geeks ask questions about the relationship European Court of Human Rights and the European Union (answer: as they say on facebook, it's complicated). Each screening left us exhausted and elated. 

And so did the festival. It was both strange and moving to see the story of three children living without running water, and sometimes even without electricity, on the outskirts of a very small Transylvanian town come to one of the biggest, highest-profile and most glamorous festivals in the world. We were profoundly honored to be here, and to be able to share the lessons of Our School with the world.

Friday, April 1, 2011

21st Century Segregation in Europe

The bridge Roma kids have to cross on the way to school Photo credit: Ovidiu Marginean (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC

[Blog post by Producer-Director Mona Nicoara, initially published on the Open Society Foundations blog. Our School was supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.]

I started working on Our School in 2005, mainly out of frustration. As a human rights activist, I had seen the excellent work of NGOs who had been working for years to document, litigate, and advocate against the widespread, insidious, often intractable practice of segregating Roma children into separate classes, schools, or even special schools for children with mental disabilities, get little traction in the public imagination. When I started the project, my friends and family back in Romania were puzzled: Surely segregation can’t exist in a European country, so what exactly was I going to document?

Indeed, five years and three European Court of Human Rights judgments later, the issue has remained largely invisible in the public mind. This is as much a failure of the imagination—that which we do not know about must not exist—as it is a symptom of the tremendous social distance between Roma and non-Roma: Roma and their problems are to be avoided or at best pitied, but never understood on their own terms or, even more alarmingly, engaged with. It’s as if we lived side by side, on facing banks of the same river, yet unable or unwilling to cross the bridge to the other side.

Once our project got underway and we finally had visible, filmed proof of segregated education, this attitude generated a second line of questioning. Friends, family, and colleagues began asking: How did we get that kind of access? What exactly did we have to do for families to allow us to film children waking up and washing up for school, or for teachers to allow us to film their classes? Implicit in those questions is the assumption that Roma are a closed, secretive, society, as well as the insinuation that Roma would open up only for material gain—that a toll would have to be extracted to cross the bridge, as it were.

Our answer still engenders disbelief and disappointment: We went there, introduced ourselves and the project to everyone, and asked for permission to film. The small Romanian town where we filmed, Targu Lapus, prides itself on its hospitality—as well they should. There were no obstacles, no promises extracted, no conditions imposed. From the Roma and non-Roma families we followed to the Ministry of Education, from school principals to substitute teachers, everyone cooperated in the spirit that independent documentation helps improve our collective understanding of what seems to be an intractable problem.

There is tremendous generosity in our participants’ willingness to go along with a project that may not help them directly, but can hopefully advance our grasp of the issue. We felt a huge burden of responsibility to do justice to that kind of openness and candor, and we wanted to fairly represent the position of all stakeholders.

We discovered that it wasn’t easy. It is always easier to make a one-sided piece than to build a complex story, and the temptation to simplify your message as you get closer to reaching a broader public is always there. Some broadcasters wanted a hard-hitting current affairs-type investigation. Some funders wanted a more streamlined story line. But we always knew that, in order to create a lasting, emotional connection to the issue, we had to do justice to all sides. In other words, the film had to work as a mirror in which every one of us can recognize themselves, and in which every one of us begin to see and question the structural barriers that keep us apart.

A rickety makeshift bridge that some of the Roma kids had to cross on their way to school every day came to embody that problem for us. Seeing seven-year-old kids cross the narrow wooden ladder perilously perched over a body of water brought out my deepest fears as a mother, and my worst anxieties as a producer. But because we felt we owed it to the children to try to cross the bridge ourselves, we tried to do so, and failed—repeatedly, miserably, sometimes comically. We realized that the bridge was just one, very small, part of what these kids were up against, every day of their life.

But the bridge was not an obstacle only for the kids. It was as much of an obstacle for adults. How were teachers expected to do their duty and visit these children’s homes? How were they supposed to understand these children if they never saw how they live? How are administrators and policy-makers supposed to make decisions about something they never see?

The least we could do was to show them the bridge, to give them a bit of access to the lives of the Roma, and have them listen to the voices of these children. And to hope that, just as everyone cooperated with this film project, they would be willing to cooperate with understanding the cultural, economic, and emotional mechanisms which need to be dismantled in order to bring about real change and to make crossing social bridges not only possible, but banal.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Prague and Thessaloniki Premieres for Our School

A young audience in the old Olympion theater in Thessaloniki. Photo credit: Edwin Rekosh (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
We had back-to-back premieres in the Czech Republic and Greece, synchronized with the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers Review of the implementation of European Court of Human Rights  judgments on segregated education for Roma. That's a mouthful. Let's back up a bit from the jargon here and explain: 

In the mid-1990s, Roma rights activists discovered that Roma children were routinely and in large numbers placed into inferior schools or classes, or even schools for children with intellectual disabilities. They began documenting this widespread pattern, writing reports, campaigning, and also doing something else: Building legal cases so that they could methodically and strategically attack states that permitted this practice before Europe's highest human rights court - the European Court of Human Rights based in Strasbourg, France. In 2007, their efforts bore fruit: the Court found the Czech Republic guilty of unfairly placing large numbers of Roma children in special schools intended for children with mental disabilities. Two more judgments followed, in rapid succession: One that found Greece guilty of placing Roma children in a separate facility, and one that condemned Croatia for not allowing Roma children whose Croatian was less than perfect to study in the same schools as majority children. Taken together, these three cases are, in many ways, Europe's Brown vs. Board of Education moment. 

But change on the ground is slow to come - we're hoping that our film can contribute to understanding why. Activists are extremely frustrated. The Czech Government has promised action on segregation for over three years now - but has done nothing in practice. The Greek Government hasn't even bothered to promise anything. Croatia isn't faring any better. Those governments who were not directly targeted by the Court's judgments are even less likely to find their zeal for school integration. And ethnic tensions continue to rise against the backdrop of economic crisis and renewed extremist nationalism. 

So the body that oversees the implementation of the Court's judgments on behalf of the Council of Europe is trying take a hard look at what is happening and what needs to actually happen to make school integration a reality - as is everyone else. Activist colleagues on the ground are trying new tools for making their case and raising awareness. We're hoping that Our School can be a good tool to untangle the web of cultural practices, structural barriers, and long-standing prejudice that keeps Roma children from having an equitable start in life and the same opportunities as the rest of us.

We're partnering with Amnesty International not only to launch the film on the festival circuit, but also to put it in the hands of those who want to use it. We're grateful to the One World and Thessaloniki documentary festivals for the opportunity to premiere there - and we're honored to be included in their excellent programs. This is just the beginning - but it's a very good one.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Our School's Editor Is the First Karen Schmeer Fellow!

Editor Erin Casper. Photo credit: Tanya Braganti
Our wonderful editor, Erin Casper, was awarded the inaugural Karen Schmeer Film Editing Fellowship, named after the late, extraordinarily talended Karen Schmeer, who edited fantastic documentaries such as The Fog of War, Sketches of Frank Gehry, Sergio and Bobby Fisher Against the World before her premature death early last year. The press announcement says:
Erin Casper is a rising talent in the documentary editing world. Having worked as an assistant and associate editor on a variety of documentary films including Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love, Erin recently completed her first feature as lead editor, Our School, a verité documentary directed by Mona Nicoara about school segregation of the Roma (‘Gypsy’) children in Romania. “Erin has been a joyful and formidable collaborator,” says Nicoara. “I have learned to fully trust her instincts and to listen very carefully when she stands her ground on issues of emotional structure and stylistic choices. The film fully reflects her quirky sensibility, emotional intelligence, and profound understanding of documentary ethics.”

Nearly 100 applications were received for the initial year of the fellowship from a diverse and talented group of editors across the country. Ms. Casper impressed the fellowship committee with her dedication, love of editing, humility, humor, curiosity and remarkable ability to shape a story as demonstrated in Our School.
We're thrilled for Erin! Her tremendous talent deserves all the recognition in the world. We're just glad the world took notice of what we've known all along.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Spring Festivals Update

Springtime in Targu Lapus. Photo credit: Ovidiu Marginean (c) Sat Mic Film, LLC
We're rolling out Our School this spring - beginning with synchronized launches in the Czech Republic and Greece, two of the countries found guilty of segregating Roma children in schools at the European Court of Human Rights, and then going a national premieres in Switzerland and our North American premiere at the 10th edition of the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Here is the schedule: 

One World Prague, March 8-17, Prague, Czech Republic
Thessaloniki Dok Fest, March 11-20, Thessaloniki, Greece
Visions du Reel, April 7-13, Nyon, Switzerland
Tribeca Film Festival, April 20-May 1, New York, USA

We're honored to be in these great festivals, and quite excited at the chance to finally present the story of Alin, Beni, and Dana before audiences in Europe and America!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Human Rights Commissioner: No Progress on Segregation in Czech Republic

As we prepare for the premiere of Our School at the One World Prague Film Festival and at Thessaloniki Doc Fest, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, issued a report on his recent visit to the Czech Republic, highlighting segregated education as a main concern:

“Deeply-rooted anti-Gypsyism and hate crimes as well as continued segregation in education and housing are the main obstacles to inclusion that Roma face in the Czech Republic [...] Three years after a landmark judgment of the European Court of Human Rights which found that the Czech Republic had discriminated against Roma with respect to their right to education, little has changed on the ground. It is necessary to take resolute and urgent action. Tangible progress for transfers of children from special to ordinary education and overall desegregation of the school system should be made already in the next school year.”

A nuanced story about what it  truly takes to give whole generation of Roma children a real chance in life, Our School intends to contribute to the ongoing conversation on Roma education all over Europe. By telling a compelling human story that is part of a broader rights movement, Our School seeks to mobilize new energies at a moment that is ripe for change.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reel Education Reisdency

Reel Education is an initiative of Working Films, a pioneering organization that brings together documentary films on a mission with community organizers and activism. By bringing together several film projects centered on the same theme, Reel Education took a page from the Chicken and Egg playbook for gaining traction and reaching critical mass on specific issues. Our School joined projects like Mariachi High, Shakespeare High, Brooklyn Castle, To Be Heard, Speaking in Tongues and An American Promise in a week-long residency in upstate New York aimed at developing seeding collaboration, mapping out campaign plans, and developing strategies for approaching educators and activists in the US. The little productive, fun, and snowy camp upstate was capped by a pitching session at the 52nd Street Project in New York City, where the projects were presented before a large audience of stakeholders - educators, unions, advocacy groups, teacher training institutions, etc. We're looking forward to collaborating with them, as well as with our fellow filmmakers who are part of Reel Education in the coming months and years.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Resegregation by Any Other Name...

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word - Disintegration
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We had to share this razor-sharp analysis of re-segregation trends in American politics from last night's Colbert Report. It would be a lot funnier if it wasn't true.