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Jane Enkin

Review of Strangers No More and Teacher Irena- Winnipeg International Film Festival put on by Rady JCC and Asper Foundation

Jane Enkin , May 4, 2012

[Editor's note-There are a lot of great offerings at the  Winnipeg  International Jewish Film Festival. Several different writers will be reviewing a sampling of the films. To see what is on for the next week, please click on the related ad on the right side bar of this website. Jane Enkin's review of two films is below]. 

I enjoyed two very different documentary films about schools in Israel, as part of the  Winnipeg International Jewish Film Festival put on by the Rady JCC an the Asper Foundation. 

Strangers No More is an upbeat look at a public school that serves refugee children in Tel Aviv.  These kids come from a huge number of countries, and arrive speaking a huge range of languages.  They come with an assortment of troubles too; some have never attended school before arriving in Israel, some have run away from violence and devastating loss.

“Everyone has a special story, a really complicated story,” explains principal Karen Tal.  In the film, she and her staff of teachers – all white women, by the way – spend a great deal of time listening to the stories of these children and their parents, finding ways to support them as they adjust to life in Israel.

There is a huge amount of tenderness expressed.  A teacher grows teary talking about ways to communicate without words, from the heart.  To my Canadian eye, there is an extraordinary amount of touch in this school culture – children are hugged, a teacher and child walk hand in hand, a parent embraces a teacher and then shakes her hand, and of course the happy students enjoy giggling rough and tumble play.

The film interweaves happy classroom scenes, interviews with teachers, and their interactions with individual parents and students.  Several children tell a little about their experiences or opinions. At the heart of the film are the stories of four Black African students who are followed through a school year.

The film-makers use dream-like, misty visuals to illustrate some of the stories.  Johannes, standing disoriented in the bright, busy hallways on his first day at the school, drifts back to thoughts of a dry landscape and a herd of cattle in Ethiopia.  During his year in ulpan, he blossoms into a witty, active kid, ready to be an interpreter for a new student.

We see a recollection of attackers on horseback as 16 year-old Mohammed tells us, “I remember when those people came to kill us.”  He looks into the camera and says quietly and firmly  “I am from Darfur.”  Both he and Esther, from South Africa, speak unflinchingly about the violence they fled.  A fourth child, a girl from Egypt, is shown as her father in voice-over says that she doesn't like to talk about the time she was shot, and points out the scars she still bears on her face.

As we hear these four children speak directly to the camera and watch them with teachers and classmates, they show wonderful confidence, hope and joy.

Over and over, we hear references to the school as family. The school stays open into the evening, while parents work long hours, because,  “ The school is a home.  In our vision, a home, you cannot close the door.”  As Mohammed prepares for graduation, he says to the principal, “I'm your son,” and she confirms their relationship.   

I noticed that in this film (and in the second film, Teacher Irena as well) we never see any tension or conflict between children.  Not only do children of all colours, religions and backgrounds play together happily (something you can sometimes find in Canadian schools as well)  but no one every teases, pushes, or argues. A friend reminded me, “That's not part of the script...”  Maybe there were some disagreements off-screen, or maybe it's really possible to create a totally peaceful atmosphere in a
school, given both the need and the will.

“We don't just talk about human rights, we live them,”  says a teacher.  And as a cute Chilean kid reminds us, “Children want peace, not like those violent adults who always want war.”

Teacher Irena, an Israeli documentary, looks and feels like an art house drama, in contrast to the smooth  feel of Strangers No More, which would look right in place on North American television. Strangers No More is a portrait of a school culture, a group of dedicated and happy teachers, students and parents who make a community.  The context of Teacher Irena is also a particular school culture, in  a low-income neighbourhood of Jerusalem.  The very Israeli teachers all talk at once, the children and parents from many ethnic backgrounds reveal their concerns.  However, this film is most of all a portrait of one complex individual.

We first see Irena with hammer and power drill in hand, doing repairs in her classroom, before she puts in the more conventional efforts of a grade three teacher, putting up decorations to welcome students on  the first day of school.  She impresses on the children her strictness, and complete lack of tolerance for disobedience.  Her attitude toward parents is the same – when one mother gives up trying to make excuses for being late that first morning, and says, “B'seder”, Irena, unsmiling, answers, “Lo b'seder.” (Ok.  No, it's not ok.)

As soon as this firmness is established, Irena explains her motives – it's all about respect, and a guarantee of safety for every student.  Before the first hour of class is over, she assures the children “I promise I will love you very much.”  And that love is what is expressed, deeply, through the remainder of the film.  Lots of hugs, kisses, and direct statements of love.  Her language is peppered with “motek” (sweetie) and other endearments – I liked “my ducklings.”  She will go to any lengths to build up a child's confidence.  No child is told they made a mistake – she finds amazing ways to reframe questions until they get the correct answer, then praises them to the skies.  “Irena is going to take her purse and go home!  There's nothing she can teach such a smart class!”

We learn how essential this support is as we hear about the poverty and stress in their immigrant families, and the parents' fears for their children.  Irena pours out support in after-school sessions and meetings with parents.  The moment when I got teary was when she slipped a bag of leftover food to a student after everyone else had gone home.

In the classroom, Irena smiles, dances about, looks filled with energy.  But that's not what this film is about.  The moment she is alone, the film-makers communicate with long, delicate and silent shots Irena's exhaustion and depression.  Irena tells parents and teachers that her reputation is bad -- “That Russian teacher.  She has horns and a tail. It's true, I am strict... But by the end of the year they put aside those rumours, they kiss every finger on my hand and I deserve it.”

In its sadness and beauty, the film really plays out as a drama, gently revealing the central character.  Although Irena talks about her perception of how others see her, no one actually speaks directly about her in the film – this documentary has no interviews or narration.  Well into the film, Irena tells something of her own story.  Although she is filmed in close-up, she is not speaking to the film-makers but to a troubled parent.  She talks about the sorrow we have already seen clearly.  She affirms that life is hard, but for the sake of the children, one has to keep going.

In each of these beautiful documentaries, one exuberant and one sad, the dedication and brilliant skills
of teachers are central.  But so are the dedication and brilliance of the students.  In the end, the goal in both these Israeli schools goes beyond rescuing immigrant and refugee children, to empowering them as confident, interdependent people who will reach out to others as their teachers do.

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