Djeca tranzicije

Djeca tranzicije  (Children of Transition) is a 2014 Croatian film telling the stories of Marta, David, Lana and Natalija, four children navigating their way through life.

In the first scenes we see who we learn is the mother of 15 year old Marta, ascending a set of stairs, sobbing as she empties a bag of belongings on the table in her living room. Throughout the rest of the film, the online life of Marta is shown, including extracts of the cruel messages she received through the networking site ask.fm.  Scenes with her grieving parents and sister gradually reveal the events leading up to Marta taking her own life.

For the other children in the film, there is a sense of change, new beginnings.

For David, who we first meet demonstrating his ball skills in front of the crest of the Slavonski Brod’s Budainka football team, transition is eagerly awaited in the form of a ‘piece of paper’ inviting him to La Maisa (home to the Barcelona youth squad).  The usual transition from elementary to secondary school don’t interest him, he does’t want to go.  He sees his future in football, as well as the things this will bring him:

“I think I’ll be a good soccer player.  I’d enjoy having a good car and girls and stuff”

Named after David Beckham, his future in professional football is certain, according to a local shopkeeper, and pigeon fancier.  The head of the Ivana Brlic Mazuranic Elementary School however, reduces his talents to a more objective assessment:

“He’s shown exceptional psychomotor skills”

Meanwhile, David continues to attend school where he learns from his teacher that there is a correct way to draw stars.  His artistic efforts quashed, he sets on erasing his efforts and starting again.   Similarly, the piece of paper from Barcelona never arrives.   His family, desperate for him to succeed, for their benefit as much as his, are disappointed.  But, he returns to play for Budainka.  There are, perhaps other roots to success, just as there are other ways to draw stars.

Natalija, 11, whose face we never see, plays outside in what appears to be an idyllic country scene. She rides on a tractor as it rumbles across the farmland and tends to young chicks.  She gazes out across open countryside, though, bizarrely, the shot includes a functioning electric fan.  However, we learn that in material ways Natalija is poorer than her classmates, and that this has led to bullying so severe that she has to change school.  As we follow, at ankle level, Natalija chasing an excited piglet through the farm the camera moves effortlessly to follow another child’s feet.  Inhabiting more sophisticated, red high heels, 6 year old Lana leads us into her house.  Posing by the light of the front door, Lana twirls before showing the contents of her wardrobe.    In the first words she speaks to camera she lists the contents of her wardrobe.  The subtitles follow the list with “this is my wardrobe, skirt, sweater, sweater, sweater” but they do little justice to the Croatian which is much more powerful.   Dressed in a burberry skirt and high heels Lana plays with her iPhone before clambering into an electric toy car to drive around the grounds of her house.

Lana is sophisticated and precocious, yet vulnerable.  In one scene we see her singing:

“No one’s bought me a drink for ages or undressed me with their eyes”

Scenes swap between Natalija and Lana as if to pose the question –  which girl is the richer?

Both girls are facing a transition in their schooling. The Prvi dan Škole for both children could not be further contrasted.  Lana, due to start school for the first time, plays to the camera in her pink fairy like outfit as she sits astride a matching bike.  Schooling is an unwelcome distraction to applying make-up, dressing up and singing adult songs. Natalija, meanwhile, climbs into the back of her father’s car as he reassures her that things will be different in her new school.  Her journey is interspersed with scenes with the film’s other characters, reinforcing to us the message that she has a long journey to school.

The issues considered, bullying, aspirations and inequality are not uniquely Croatian, and neither is the documentary style of the film.  However, transition of Croatia, politically, and socially and in terms of film making does provide a unique context. See for example Pavičić (2010) and Vojković (2008).

Towards the end of the film we are returned to where we began with Marta’s mother, emptying the the bag of her daughter’s belongs, having just collected  it from the police.  We cut to David, who has still to receive a piece of paper from Barcelona, watching the pigeons fly from their loft.  Where are they going, we don’t know.  Perhaps there is a clue in the clip from Marta’s social media account shown in the final scene: Bogu iza nogu (the back of beyond).

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La cour de Babel

In La cour de Babel, or School of Babel, twenty-four immigrant school-children spend a year in the ‘reception’ class of a Parisian secondary school learning French to a sufficient standard in order to move into mainstream classes. This is a ninety minute fly-on-the-wall documentary directed by Julie Bertuccelli, and is the latest in a classroom genre of French films following the successes of Philibert’s Être et Avoir, and Cantet’s drama, Entre les Murs.

The pupils of Collège de la Grange aux Belles come from across the globe and their journeys to Paris are equally diverse.  Mihajlo and his family have fled anti-Semitism in Serbia, Miguel has come from Venezuela to study the cello, Luca has relocated from Northern Ireland due to his mother’s new job, and Kessa, from England, has been sent to develop her French language skills as her family believe it will improve her job prospects.  In the process of observing parent-teacher interviews we learn more about the lives of these children, and the motivations behind their parents and guardians’ desires for them to do well in school.  On hearing about Rama’s misbehaviour in class her disappointed guardian recalls the mistreatment she was subjected to by her family in Senegal and asks “Did you come here to study, or to fool around” reminding Rama that she is fortunate to be given this opportunity to do well. At these interviews we hear that for Djenabou going to school in France means freedom from excision (female genital mutilation) that she would likely encounter on return home to Guinea. Interview after interview with parents and guardians reveals hard working families who are committed to helping their children do well.

Some of the children have come to France with their families seeking asylum. There is  Mihajlo, already mentioned, who offers help to the refugee service, and in so doing leaves little time to complete his homework.  There is Maryam, from Libya, who has to leave the school at short notice as she and her family are being relocated to Verdun.  When her classmates express shock that this is a decision made by social workers, not her mother, Maryam explains, pragmatically, that they must take the opportunity to move into more suitable living accommodation when offered, they are not in a position to turn the move down.  However, it is clear that this disruption is not going to get in the way of Maryam’s ambition to become a doctor.

For all the children in this class, whether asylum seekers or not, this experience is a transient one.  At the end of the year many will progress into mainstream classes while others are required to stay on in the reception class.  When Rama hears that she is being asked to repeat the year she erupts into a vocal denunciation of the school’s “crap” teachers and condemns a racist school system which sees that black pupils, like herself, are left in poverty (her observation is not without substance).  Does the film ignore wider social issues?  Perhaps.  There is no examination of wider political and social contexts.  Yet, far from being neglected, the film reveals them to be ever present.  The context is provided by both parents and pupils as reasons and explanations for seeking an education in France.  It is left to the viewer to consider these issues further. The transience of the reception class is further highlighted in the additional material included in the UK DVD release which revisits the pupils two years after the filming.  Some are still in France, others have moved again, and there is a variety in their education trajectories.  All are doing well, and all have goals for their future.

La cour de Babel has a narrative which celebrates the contribution of immigrants, but, perhaps more significantly, celebrates the ability of reception classes to facilitate a young person’s integration into French society and offering them the chance to succeed in education. It is, therefore, a film about French values. This is not lost on the pupils. In one scene we see one girl articulating the meaning of Liberté, égalité, fraternité.   It is clear that this pupil knows exactly what this means to her and her classmates.

The History Boys

This week’s screening in Film and Education was The History Boys (2006) directed by Nicholas Hytner, and based on Alan Bennett’s stage play of the same name.

At Cutlers’ Grammar School a group of boys have just obtained the school’s highest ever A Level Grades. Returning for one more term they are coached for Oxbridge entrance by ‘General Studies’ teacher Hector (Richard Griffiths), history teacher Mrs Lintott (Frances de la Tour) and the newly appointed Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore).

The opening scene tells us the film is set in ‘Yorkshire’.  The non specificness of ‘Yorkshire’ reflects, for me at least, a sense of  placelessness; Posner refers to living in Sheffield yet Irwin lives in Horsforth (Leeds) which, we are informed is on Hector’s route home and so presumably we are in the environs of Leeds, not Sheffield.  The city scape we see is a shot of Elland, near Halifax, again suggesting we are located in West Yorkshire. Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys go on a day trip to Fountains Abbey (Ripon), while Roche Abbey (Rotherham) the other Cistercian monastery on Irwin’s agenda, might have been a more convenient location for the outing. Perhaps this geographic licence is deliberate? Ostensibly we are in Sheffield, yet at times were are in Leeds where Bennett is from. So, while The History Boys is drama, fiction, there is a hint of a Bennett autobiography.

Unlike the location, the year (1983) is specified in the opening scene.  The soundtrack features ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Mustapha Dance’, the inclusion of these reaffirms the events as occurring in the early 1980s.  This film could not be set any later however, as shortly afterwards the seventh term Oxbridge exams ceased to exist. Not only are Hector, Irwin, Lintott and the boys spending one final term together, the final term is itself coming to an end.

Other themes explored in the film could easily fit into later decades.  Hector’s humanist teaching contrasts with Irwin’s technocratic approach (Talburt, 2010) and is reflected in the mise-en-scène. Hector’s classroom follows a ‘traditional’ liberal arts theme furnished with wooden desks with pictures and photographs covering the walls.  There is one of Orwell which appears in some scenes to be looking over Hector’s shoulder, a signal that Hector is being observed, his teaching style giving rise to suspicion.  It is a sign that his days are numbered.  As the headmaster says:

“Hector produces results but unpredictable and unquantifiable…There’s inspiration, certainly, but how do I quantify that?”

In contrast, Irwin’s classroom looks functional and modern with bare walls; it is suited for a different purpose (Jays, 2006).  Irwin is there to get results in a competition with the best, even though the headmaster is confused over who the ‘best’ are:

“We’re low in the league. I want to see us up there with Manchester Grammar, Haberdasher Askes, Leighton Park… or is that an open prison?”

There is a more difficult theme played out during the course of the film which revolves around Hector’s relationship with his pupils.  Hector rides a motorbike and routinely offers a boy (with the exception of Posner) a lift home.  On the first occasion that we witness this offering each boy in turn quickly gives a reason for declining leaving Scripps who, seemingly out of a sense of duty agrees to ride pillion.  As they ride home Hector gropes Scripps and this scenario is repeated each time one of the boys becomes a passenger. It is clearly a sexual assault, yet the boys do not consider themselves victims, with Dakin even intervening to save Hector’s career after his behaviour is reported to the headmaster.

It is not clear what message the film gives about Hector’s behaviour.  The boys, in other words his ‘victims’ remain supportive and the film clearly invites us to share the affection they have for Hector. Should we follow the boys’ lead and turn a blind eye to Hector’s behaviour?  Should we feel guilty for mourning Hector’s demise?

Hector, of course tries to minimise his actions, to which the only sensible response comes from Mrs. Lintott:

 “A grope is a grope. It is not the Annunciation”

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Être et avoir

This week’s screening on Film and Education was Être et Avoir, the 2002 award winning ‘fly on the  wall’ documentary directed by French film maker Nicolas Philibert.

Filmed across the course of a school year Être et Avoir tells a story (whose story it tells is a matter for discussion) of a single class, all-age primary school in the village of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne region of France.   We witness the quiet dedication, concern and authority of Georges Lopez, the school’s teacher of twenty years as he approaches retirement.  We watch the children learning to write, sledging, flipping pancakes, supporting each other, pushing one another over, as well as falling out and making up.  At times the intrusion into this intimate space becomes uncomfortable when the camera focuses our attention on the emotional distress experienced by some of the children. The observation style briefly deviates when Lopez, tending the school’s garden (it is also his home), turns to the camera, and in an interview style tells the story of him becoming a teacher.

Être et Avoir is a distinctly French film, not only because it is French, but because, as Powrie (2005) discusses it reflects recent French cinema’s concern with the preadolescent child as potential victims of dysfunctional families and failing state institutions. Also, it would be difficult to take the nurturing, intimate, often tactile, yet clearly asexual relationship between the male Lopez and the children in his care and place it into an English primary school.  This taps into another idea discussed by Powrie; that of the theme of retrospection and heterospection as seen in the spaces we view the children inhabiting.  For example, the film presents a rural idyll, resonating with freedom, supporting a nostalgic and romantic vision of childhood (Aitken, 2007).   The outside shots show the cycle of seasons, suggesting, simultaneously, continuity and discontinuity.  The same seasonal cycle is reflected in the life of the school, the transition of the older children is a disruption, yet a new intake introduced towards the end of the film highlights continuity.  However, we are also shown contrasting spaces where children inhabit more of an adult world.  For example, we see Julien reversing a tractor on the family farm, and later cooking for his siblings. He is, as Lopez says ‘strong as an ox’, but this does not stop him assuming responsibility of caring for young members of his family.  The freedom associated with the open space is inverted, briefly, when we see the search for Alizée, seemingly lost in a field. We are reminded that open spaces are mysterious, disorientating, and that freedom is potentially risky.

Student responses to the screening included, amongst other comments, that it was ‘boring’,  and that ‘nothing happens’ but this is an effect which this example of cinematic ethnography has tried to achieve.  However, far from accurately representing the mundane reality of this small village school, être et avoir is a construction of reality, with ten weeks worth of filming condensed and packaged into a one-hundred minute DVD.  Lopez and the children may be ‘stars’ of the film, but the film may not represent their stories.

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La Educación Prohibida

La Educación Prohibida or Forbidden Education is a documentary film released earlier this year.

Independently produced by a group of young students and graduates, collectively funded via crowdfunding, La Educación Prohibida interviews over ninety professionals and specialists in the areas of education and human development across Latin America and Spain, exploring a range of pedagogical models.  The film is freely distributed under a creative commons license and is in Spanish/Castellano with subtitles available in several languages, including English.   It is available to download from www.educacionprohibida.com, as well as itunes. The film is also available on youtube with or without subtitles.

La Educación Prohibida begins by highlighting the importance of education as recognised by the media, philosophers, experts and governments.  With such an importance placed on education, the film sets out to consider the extent to which schooling helps us to develop both individually and collectively.

The film is divided into ten key themes in which the history of schooling is discussed, and the functions and limitations of typical schools are examined before moving on to an exploration of alternative curriculum models. Interspersed between interviews is a drama focusing on a student campaign to declare education in their school ‘forbidden’.  There are also some impressive animations and graphics to illustrate key points.

While La Educación Prohibida is focused on Latin America, the discussions apply to ongoing debates on the purposes of schooling and education in the UK. Optimism about the future of education is maintained, the film aims to “reunite schooling with education” with this presented as not only desirable, but entirely possible.

It is refreshing to see a non-English language film tackling issues that are as pertinent to the UK.  It is also good to see a well produced documentary that is a collective, non-profit endeavour.  At almost two and half hours this documentary is long,especially if you need to read the English subtitles.  A second viewing, at least, is needed to engage further with the discussion.

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KES

This week, Film and Education students have been watching KES.

Fifteen year old Billy Casper is physically and verbally abused by his older brother Jud, ignored by his mother and bullied by his peers.  Billy, determined not to follow his brother “down the pit”, seems hopelessly destined to do just that. When Billy takes a young kestrel chick from a nest he nurtures a significant, touching bond, and inhabits a world seemingly removed from his other, more brutal reality. As the story unfolds, we learn that it is not and while Billy is powerless to break free from his reality he is never broken.

Ken Loach’s retelling of Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave has become a cinematic classic.   Using pupils from local secondary modern schools (in other words those who had failed their 11+) including David Bradley as Billy, as well as other non professional actors drawn from around Barnsley, Loach attempts a gritty realism, an authentic portrayal of one working class boy’s life as he faces the transition from school to work.  The use of natural lighting emphasises the contrasting environments that Billy faces, or will face; the dark interiors of home, the pit and school versus the light, bright freedom of the outdoors.  The Barnsley dialect, which allegedly rendered Hungarian more understandable to Rank executives (Stephenson, 1973) along with a plot focusing on the mundane with its absence of dramatic events or happy endings is surely used to add a feeling of purity and sense of authenticity.

KES’ representation of secondary education in the late 1960‘s reveals its ideological opposition to a school’s role in preparing working class pupils for a life of routine manual labour through inculcating a culture of subordination, obedience and powerlessness.  In this way KES is a dramatisation of Bowles and Gintis’ (1976) correspondence theory. Yet, through its  fictional ethnography of schooling KES also illustrates the agency of pupils in response to this culture, akin to some of the observations found in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labour.

Powerless as Billy Casper and his peers are to escape this structure the film reveals the pupils awareness of it, as well as their resilience to it. The hilarious football scene in which a deluded Mr. Sugden (played by Brian Glover, then a Barnsley school teacher and part-time wrestler) plays out his Bobby Charlton fantasies, shows the pupils arguing with him about unfairness and cheating. MacDowell vociferously protests his innocence regarding the ‘offence’ of coughing in assembly while the ‘culprit’ keeps quiet.  Assembled boys, waiting for the head teacher collectively discharge their contraband to an innocent messenger, and together they laugh as the head speechifies about the “generation that never listens” before he, in turn fails to listen to the protests of the unwitting mule.

The caning scene is brutal, but it is routinised, as is all the violence in KES, making it, perhaps more acceptable to those receiving and perpetrating it.  Certainly, as one boy says  “I’d rather have the cane than do lessons”. Similarly, Gryce, the head teacher describes having no option but to use the cane, even though he is clearly aware it does not work:

“I still have to use this to you boys everyday….until someone produces a better solution I’ll continue to use this cane, knowing fully well that you’ll be back for it, time and time, and time again….”

Interestingly, the DVD describes the violence contained in the film as “infrequent/mild” suggesting to viewers that, perhaps, routinised violence is acceptable.

Then there is Billy’s awareness of his own employment prospects and his philosophy surrounding this. Following a fight on the coke heap with MacDowell, Billy’s conversation with Mr. Farthing (played by Colin Welland, at the time the only professional actor in the film) about his impending transition from school to work reveals Billy’s acceptance of his position in life, but crucially his awareness of it:

Farthing: What sort of job do you want?

Casper:  Not bothered Sir, anything’ll do me

Farthing: Yea, but you want something that you’re looking forward to, that your interested in, don’t you?

Casper: I’ve not much choice Sir, I’ll take what I’ve got

Farthing: I thought you wanted to leave school?

Casper: I’m not bothered

Farthing: I thought you didn’t like school?

Casper: I don’t, but it don’t mean I’ll like work, does it. Still, I’ll get paid for not liking it, that’s one thing

Farthing: Yea, I suppose it is

And so, Loach problematises middle-class sympathy in his attempt to privilege the voice of the working-class pupils in describing the reality of their lived experience.  Limited agency, yes, but Billy and his peers are no somnolent sufferers of false class consciousness.

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School of Rock

The first film under the spotlight on this term’s Film and Education is School of Rock (2003) directed by Richard Linklater.

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Through the liminal zone of the classroom at Horace Green Preparatory School Dewey Finn, in a desperate attempt to pay his share of the rent, impersonates a substitute teacher. Rejecting the expected curriculum and pedagogy he sets out to transform his class into a winning rock band, and while his deceit is exposed, Dewey is redeemed and his teaching style is vindicated as the class secure their place in the Battle of the Bands.

School of Rock adopts a formulaic narrative which sees the equilibrium broken for all characters, and ends with the establishment of a new, and more fulfilling one.  The representations of schooling, teachers, teaching and learning reflect ongoing debates around the purpose and nature of education.  Dewey literally rips up the system of rewards and demerits, grants recess and abandons the syllabus.  While initially this reflects his antipathy towards his feigned role (having described teaching as babysitting), on recognising musical talent in his pupils, this is soon channelled into a child centred pedagogy.  We see the children engaging enthusiastically on a rock band project, collaborating with Dewey to conceal the reality of their new school experience from the stern Principal Mullins.  Yet, while the narrative predictably sets teacher centred learning against child centred learning, Dewey, the child centred protagonist is not averse to drawing on authoritarian approaches himself, while the pupils have to pledge allegiance to the band, they also have to pledge their allegiance to his creativity.

The pretence cannot last of course, and Dewey’s true identity is revealed after he fails to convince assembled parents that he has taught the required syllabus, or that rock is a suitable subject for study.  We learn early on in the film that education is a market place; parents spend $15, 000 a year for a place at Horace Green Prep. They expect results and not the anti-establishment, creative expressions of a rock band.  Just as it seems that the forces of progressivism have been quashed, the pupils organise themselves to rescue Dewey from returning to his former self,  defying authority to play at the Battle of the Bands.  They don’t win of course, at least not the battle itself.  After all, they have abandoned grades, but they have won something much more significant as a new equilibrium is established with Principal Mullins and parents convinced of a more liberal education, at least in the discreet context of Dewey’s after school rock project.

Speed (2010: 101) highlights the “anti-intellectualism” inherent in this film, seen firstly in Dewey Finn’s rejection of the school system, the knowledge taught and teaching styles.  Secondly, we see this “anti-intellectualism” endorsed through the popularity of Dewey and the apparent success of his approach to teaching.

Fun to watch, School of Rock explores the tensions between competing educational ideologies and resolves them, safely.

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Say Hello

Today, The Kings Speech, is released in UK cinemas.  It tells the story of King George VI, who, although he was never destined to be King, became the monarch following the abdication of his brother King Edward VIII.  George VI, or Bertie as he was previously known, had a stammer, and so the film tells the story of his relationship with Lionel Logue who helped him to face his fears of public speaking in order to make the broadcast speeches that were expected of a monarch, particularly in wartime.   What has that to do with education.  Not a lot, not directly. The release of the film however is the first date in the diary of Hello – the national year of communication.

Supported by the Department for Education,   Hello is the national year of communication, 2011.

What is hello?

It is a campaign, run by The Communication Trust, which is a collection of voluntary and community organisations with interests in speech, language and communication.  The campaign hopes to raise understanding about the importance of speech, language and communication skills to children and young people.  It is estimated that around 10% of children (over 1 million children) have a speech, language or communication need, not caused by deprivation or english as an additional language.  Problems can be exacerbated by poverty, and in areas of high social deprivation it is estimated that upwards of 50% of children begin school with some form of language delay.  Hello aims to raise awareness among parents, children’s workforce, and health care commissioners and providers.  The timing of the release of The Kings Speech fits nicely with the first months’ theme: Don’t take communication for granted.  About The Kings Speech, The Communication Trust says:

“hopefully this film will help others to understand what it is like for those who struggle to communicate and the people around them.”

The British Stammering Association is one of the organisations working with The Communication Trust, and it sees the release of the film is an opportunity to raise awareness of, and to talk openly about the challenges faced by people who stammer.  It has a dedicated stammering in education site which provides invaluable information for school staff, as well as some excellent information concerning pre-school children.

Meanwhile, watch the film.

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