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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Our School" Directors Mona Nicoara and Miruna Coca-Cozma

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire April 12, 2011 at 3:48AM

"Our School" follows three Roma (commonly known as "Gypsy") children in a rural Transylvanian village who are among the pioneer participants in an initiative to integrate the ethnically segregated Romanian schools. When their district is ordered desegregated, Alin, Benjamin, and Dana set out for the city school, optimistic for education and new friendships, even as funds earmarked for integration are questionably used to build a "Roma-only" school in their village. Their innocent optimism quickly sours when the children are met with baseless ostracism from peers and teachers alike.
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"Our School" follows three Roma (commonly known as "Gypsy") children in a rural Transylvanian village who are among the pioneer participants in an initiative to integrate the ethnically segregated Romanian schools. When their district is ordered desegregated, Alin, Benjamin, and Dana set out for the city school, optimistic for education and new friendships, even as funds earmarked for integration are questionably used to build a "Roma-only" school in their village. Their innocent optimism quickly sours when the children are met with baseless ostracism from peers and teachers alike.

Shot over four years, the filmmakers' tender portrait of rural village life and its rhythms fosters an intimacy in the children's profound reality and admiration for their indomitable spirit, which is then punctuated with shocking instances of prejudice and ignorance. Their story touches on issues ranging from institutionalized racism, public education, and the intractability of poverty, culminating in an outrageous finale that cements the Roma children's struggle in the annals of egregious human rights violations. "Our School" is an absorbing, infuriating, and ultimately bittersweet story of tradition and progress. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

"Our School"
World Documentary Competition
Primary Cast:Alin Moldovan, Beniamin Lingurar, Dana Varga
Director(s): Mona Nicoara, Miruna Coca-Cozma
Producer(s): Mona Nicoara, Miruna Coca-Cozma
Editor: Erin Casper
Director of Photography: Ovidiu Marginean
Executive Producer: Julie Goldman
Composer: Sasha Gordon
Co-Producer: Miruna Coca-Cozma
Supervising Editor: Jonathan Oppenheim
Consulting Editor: Carol Dysinger

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

Responses courtesy of “Our School” co-director Mona Nicoara.

A professional introduction into filmmaking...

I worked for many years as a human rights activist, so I knew all too well the power of telling a single, exemplary story. But I didn’t get hooked on documentary filmmaking until I started to work with Edet Belzberg on "Children Underground." This was before her film got all the accolades - the Sundance award, the Academy-Award nomination; it was soon after one of the first shoots, when she was looking for someone to translate her footage in New York. I started working on the project because I believed in the issue - in principle, abstractly, as it were. But as I got deeper into the tapes, I discovered more than I had ever known - even when I was living in Bucharest and seeing street children on a daily basis. When Jonathan Oppenheim came on as an editor, I saw this raw, powerful material shaped into a tight story organized around a hard emotional core, then chiseled into a razor-sharp tool for understanding and communication. No frills, no fancy effects. Just story. It was a very visceral realization that the medium of film can help us access truths that may not be otherwise apparent, even in un-mediated interactions.

On how the idea for the film about...

Frustration, mainly. After a few years of working with Roma rights activists advocating for desegregation, I realized that principled, rights-claiming stances, while rhetorically effective, offer limited insights into the specific solutions that each case and each community needs in practice. I wanted to do an in-depth research project that would help people understand how things play out on the ground, how different cultural, economic and personal dynamics affect the outcome of integration projects. I knew there was a film in there somewhere, and I tried to propose it as an advocacy piece to NGOs. But I soon realized that, to do it justice, I had to commit to it as a film, not as an advocacy piece, and to devote as much time as would be needed to come out with a strong, fully-realized story. Even so, I had no idea how much time it would take.

When we started shooting, we thought that we would follow the children for only one school year. We ended up following them over four years. And, as we became more involved with the participants in the project, it became clear to us that the heart of the film would revolve less around the school issue and more around the individual stories of the children we were following, around their great hopes, small victories, and devastating defeats.

Building the right team for the project...

We knew from the very beginning that we would have to work as a very small, stable, tight crew. There were never more than three of us: myself, co-director Miruna Coca-Cozma, and director of photography Ovidiu Marginean. We could do some advance planning, but there was little opportunity for communication in many settings: For instance, we had to tread lightly in the classrooms, where we did not want to interfere with the teaching process, much less wear out our welcome. We also knew, going into a vérité, observational project, that many of the main moments in the film would take us by surprise, and we had to make sure that each of the crew members was empowered to make decisions in such situations. We all had to be full creative partners. Additionally, the fact that all of us were Romanian helped build trust in the community, and helped us enjoy tremendous access.

We also knew that this would be a long edit. Our editor, the miraculously talented Erin Casper, came on board almost two years ago, and together we worked in close collaboration with Jonathan Oppenheim, our supervising editor, and consulting editor Carol Dysinger, to shape this complex story that involves three children in three different schools over four years. We were extremely lucky to invited along the way to the Sundance Documentary Lab, the IFP Lab, and the Chicken and Egg mentorship, and to have the support of the wonderful Julie Goldman, our executive producer.

The hardest part of getting the film made...

Other than the constant struggle for funding? Staying open to possibilities while keeping the original intention of the film in sight. We all came to the story with our own baggage - memories of having Roma kids as classmates in primary school, received wisdom about why these classmates tended to disappear from our life by high school, reflexive understandings of racism, and preconceived notions of what the ultimate structure of the story would be.

We tried to rid ourselves of all that baggage, as much as we could. Not knowing the end until the very last shoot helped keep us open to possibilities, and allowed us to experience the story as our participants discovered and processed it themselves. If you wear two hats, like I did as a producer and director, this kind of uncertainty can drive you insane: How do you balance budget and technical constraints with the needs of an open-ended story? But working with children, especially with children as free and spirited as our participants, taught us very quickly that if we just go along with the story, if we wait for the right moment, and enjoy the process, we get a lot more than if we tried to exercise control and contain, well, life.

Adventures in filmmaking...

Shooting was, in many ways, quite easy: We enjoyed tremendous access and were welcomed by everyone in town. By the end, they had seen us there for so many years, and had lost all hope that we would ever finish the film. Many of the participants actually shook their heads in pity when we came back last year. If there were any obstacles, they came mainly from us: I remember this narrow makeshift bridge some of the children would have to cross on their way to school every day. As a mom myself, I shuddered every time I saw these small kids crossing over a river on what was basically a rickety wooden ladder. But we felt that we owed it to them to try crossing it ourselves. Well, we couldn’t do it, not if our life depended on it. Not with equipment, not without equipment. We tried several times, and failed comically, pathetically each time. In our minds, the bridge became an object that embodied what these kids are up against, every day of their life, and how hard we have to try, as outsiders, to adequately represent their experience.

Making sure the objectives are reaches, even after the film is finished...

I’m researching a rather personal project about guilt and responsibility, but I’m giving myself time. I plan to stay with this film for a while, to make sure that it does the work I intended it to do in terms of advocacy, audience engagement and training for educators and activists.

This article is related to: Interviews