Film Review: Our School

Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma's documentary unfolds in Romania, but its depiction of multi-generational poverty perpetuated in part by substandard schooling could as easily have been set in dozens of other countries.

In 2006, the Romanian government distributed special education grants to 30 small towns; the funds were earmarked for efforts to get the children of Roma—or gypsy—families out of segregated, low-performing local schools and into the educational mainstream.

One such town, Targu Lapis, allowed filmmakers to document their efforts to integrate more than a dozen children from Dileu, a muddy, isolated and impoverished Roma "neighborhood"—shantytown might be a better description—into a school in the town center. They range in age from six or seven to teens, and their education to date has clearly been catch-as-catch-can.

Filmmakers Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma focus on three personable and articulate youngsters, two boys and a girl. The youngest is eight-year-old Alin, whose scrappy, devil-may-care bravado belies a prickly sensitivity to veiled slights and insults. The oldest is Dana, a pretty 16-year-old who's already working to help support her family; she’s equally conscious of the way ethnic Romanians, even the ones who think of themselves as broad-minded and tolerant, condescend to her. But she has brains and discipline, and wants to do more with her life than herd other people's cattle and do housework for the "gadje," the Roma word for non-gypsies. Chubby, 12-year-old Beni is in the middle; his cheerful disposition and love of soccer have the potential to allow him to make friends outside his own community and perhaps get a foothold in the non-Roma world.

All three have the support of their families, but the odds are clearly against them. After the first couple of days, when they're driven into town in a small cart, the kids have to walk the two-and-a-half miles from Dileu, and all their parents' efforts can't hide the fact that they wash up with buckets of cold water and wear hand-me-down clothes. Even the youngest Roma children are far behind their peers in basic skills, from penmanship to rudimentary addition and subtraction.

Their teachers range from sympathetic to hostile. One quits halfway through the semester rather than continue to deal with them, seeing "violence in their blood" rather than the restlessness of kids unused to classroom routines. Another starts out frustrated and wary, only visiting Dileu to find out why some kids have stopped showing up for class when the filmmakers agree to accompany her. But she gradually realizes they just need extra encouragement and attention, which a third recognizes from the start. The younger kids play with their classmates at recess, but that's as far as it generally goes: The moment when one Romanian mother, whose son regularly plays soccer with the newcomers, pointedly asks about the dirty words he picked up from them speaks volumes.

Our School's final, four-years-later summation—more than a coda, less than a fully fleshed-out segment—falls somewhere between starry optimism and resignation, and it's remarkably affecting in the way real life often is. Dana, Beni and Alin's lives have changed...not dramatically, but appreciably, and it's hard not to come away with a new (or renewed) respect for the potential power of baby steps.