Mona Nicoara is producer and director of Our School, a film about three Roma children who are part of a pioneer initiative to desegregate the local schools in a small Transylvanian town. The film, which received a grant from the Open Society Foundations, will have its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City later this month. I asked Mona to discuss her film and the challenges facing school desegregation in Europe.
Roma in Europe face myriad problems, from widespread discrimination and unemployment to poor access to health care. Why did you choose to focus on the issue of school segregation for your film?
It’s a truism that education is the key to unlocking the vicious cycle of disenfranchisement, discrimination, and poverty. When it comes to Roma, we, the non-Roma, tend to throw clichés around, unthinkingly: “Get a job!” or “Learn to behave in the world!” But how are you to get a job and learn how to function in the world if the world rejects you at the first contact? If you’re not given a chance in first grade, what’s the likelihood that, as an adult, you are going to access a better life than your parents? How are you supposed to get out of poverty if you don’t have any skills?
But the answer is also personal: Guilt. I went to elementary school with Roma, back in Romania. I saw them drop out after primary school, or simply disappear from the more competitive high schools that me and my friends were going to. As an adolescent, I never investigated why this was happening. I never even paid attention.
But by the time I started to look for schools for my own children (we were living in Hungary back then), I had worked for quite a while as a human rights activist, and I was keenly aware of the fact that the “good” schools we were looking at had virtually no Roma students, not even in the lower grades. I wanted to go back and see where it all went wrong. I wanted to understand what we need to do differently.
What were you expecting to see before you visited Târgu Lăpus, and what, if anything, were you not prepared for?
I confess I went there with at least one preconceived notion: I expected to see Romanian parents oppose integration, as the non-Roma parents had done in other places—in Croatia, Hungary, but also in other towns in Romania. And I had a keen awareness of historical precedent. I didn’t expect anything like the Civil Rights–era anti-integration demonstrations in Little Rock, or the violent anti-busing protests in Boston—this was, after all, a small, peaceful Transylvanian town—but I expected to see some resistance or discomfort on the part of the parents.
So the smooth acceptance of the Romanian parents took us by surprise. It wasn’t just mere tolerance, there was genuine empathy.
In Our School you follow three children—Alin, Beni, and Dana. Tell me how you met the children and their families, and what were your impressions of them?
When we first arrived in town, at dusk, we asked several people where the segregated school was. We could not find it, so we assumed we had gotten the kind of imprecise directions that people who live all their life in a place often give. As it turned out, we had passed by the segregated school several times in our car, but didn’t think that the one-room crumbling exposed-brick building we kept driving by could house a school. Our driver even said, in all earnestness: “I thought that was a public toilet.”
We parked in front of the school, which is right at the edge of a small Roma settlement, and started looking around. These two large, imposing Roma men, who I later realized were Alin’s father and uncle, came over, identified themselves as leaders of the Roma community, and asked us if we wanted them to unlock the school for us to look around.
As soon as we explained what we wanted to do, they started telling stories about their own time in the segregated school—about how the building was made up of bricks hand-crafted by their grandparents, about how Roma in town had always been told that their children belong in the “Gypsy school,” about how it had always been a bad place where kids were kept “like cows in the field,” without being taught anything or challenged to succeed in any way. Despite their anger, they were matter-of-fact, even funny. And there was hope in the air, as the desegregation project was just about to begin.
We didn’t meet the kids until the next day, when we came back during school hours. Dana stuck out right away—at sixteen, she was the oldest in class, and she towered over all the other kids. She was so proud to be the best student in class and to be working after school as domestic help in a Romanian home. And she was just such a typical, coquettish teenager—we would have had to be blind not to realize she was a wonderful character.
Alin reminded me right away of my older son: spirited, very physical, mischievous without being rude, and extremely funny. He was so happy to have someone listen to him. I suspect that’s because he is the middle child in a line-up of nine kids, all with strong personalities, and he doesn’t get much air time at home. We connected to him because he has so much awareness, and he is such an incredible storyteller, and such a great ham! He kept showing up, out of nowhere, mid-shoot. My co-director Miruna Coca-Cozma joked that we couldn’t do this film without Alin even if we wanted to—he is practically in every shot!
Beni is a much quieter presence. It took us a while to realize how thoughtful he was, how much hope and strength resides inside him. I think he gets a lot of that from his own parents, who have faith—in him, in God, and in the idea that all people should be equal. He always asked the hardest questions: “Why is this class for Gypsies only?” “Why don’t we get the same treatment as Romanians?” In a way, just like the two other Roma children, he chose us—rather than the other way round.
Last but not least, the Romanian boy who befriended Alin and Beni, Boga, is one of those cool kids everyone looks up to. He’s a very good student, so teachers love him. He’s a soccer fiend, so all his schoolmates want to play with him. He’s friendly and unprejudiced, so the Roma children naturally sought his company. And he’s quite a girl magnet, too!
We met his mother, by accident, before we met him: She makes the best, most addictive fried dough in town, and she has a great sense of humor, so we became her regular customers before we even started shooting. She was amused by the attention that her son got from the Roma kids, but never truly bothered by it, and she never discouraged him from hanging out with them.
What do you think viewers will be most surprised to learn about the situation in Târgu Lăpus?
I think it is hard for people who see the film to understand how the current school situation has been so easily accepted by everyone there. If you experience the story from the perspective of the children, as we did, and as our audiences do, you see hope for a better future gradually extinguished within a few short years. But the adults in town did not experience any change—in fact, they only saw more of the same. Everyone, from the Roma parents to the school administrators and the city hall, sees what happened as just par for the course.
There is no tension in the town about it, no sense that what happened, happened on purpose, or that a single person or group should be held responsible. There is no sense of ill will. In a way, this is the true horror of unexamined racism: It shapes the course of events on its own, even going against the peaceful spirit of a small town like that, where everybody knows everybody’s name and no one could even imagine harming a whole generation on purpose.
The children in the film face incredible hurdles just to attend a desegregated school. From your perspective, how can the problem of school segregation for Roma children be resolved?
I wish I had a simple answer, but I took on this project precisely because I knew that we needed to understand the complexity of the problem before we can even begin to think about solutions. It is clear to me that some aspects can be addressed by laws or by courts—matters of principle, like nondiscrimination, resource allocation, and a firm recognition that separate can never be equal where education for Roma is concerned.
There are also structural issues that need to be addressed: housing, the status of Roma settlements (which ties into access to basic utilities such electricity or water), or the availability of early childhood education.
And then there is the battle for our hearts and minds, which is extremely local and personal. I now believe that everyone, every single stakeholder has to be brought on board. Non-Roma parents should be helped to see the value of exposing their children to different cultures, of teaching them empathy, of imbuing them with good values early on. Roma parents have to have faith that their children can succeed even if they themselves did not.
This sounds simpler in theory than it is in practice: It is harder to imagine success if you have never seen it, if you have never experienced a supportive school, or if you have never had a Roma role model to look up to. And Roma children have to learn to push through rejection, rather than give up and retreat. That’s a huge burden for these children, and they’re not going to make it through on their own—they need their parents, their siblings, their friends, their neighbors to cheer them on.
Teachers have to learn that there is an inherent value in a multicultural classroom that goes far beyond test scores, and that a good learning environment for all will raise performance for all. But they can’t do that alone either. They need support from school administrators, local authorities, central decision-makers—things like additional training, additional resources or teaching assistance. Integrating Roma need not be an unmanageable, unfair task for the teachers; instead, it should become one of the ways in which they can get job satisfaction.
Finally, there’s everybody else—local priests, mayors, soccer coaches, you name it. It really takes a village to raise a child, and we all need to learn to be more thoughtful about the messages we send to our children—both Roma and non-Roma. We tend not to think enough about that, to fall back on received notions and racist baggage that we ourselves inherited. The current structures are premised on our inertia—and cannot be broken unless they are confronted with thoughtful consideration, respect for individuals and their rights, an understanding of root causes of segregation, and a willingness to contribute to change.
You can’t really do all of that from a distance—you can do some of that work in Brussels or in Strasbourg, you can take care of some of the issues in national parliaments and central ministries, but the hardest, most important battles are going to be fought locally, almost door-to-door, and the solutions will almost always have to be tailored to the specifics of each place.