Common stereotypes about the Roma (gypsy) character—spunky, irate, crass—are put to the test in Mona Nicoara’s Our School. The documentary charts a “remedial” program initiated by an EU human-rights court to integrate farmland Roma children into a Transylvanian public school in exchange for state financing. In an early scene, the town’s mayor describes the importance of ending the Romas’ isolation, because “when they feel isolated, they are offered, how should I say, the opportunity to do, pardon my language, stupid stuff.” It’s a forced consolation, but the school’s director comes off even more apprehensive, telling the new students during a stilted first-day celebration to “take good care of what we are offering here.” His attempts to make the program stick are halfhearted from day one. The Roma kids look around their mostly empty classroom and ask the teacher where the non-gypsy children are. One girl tells the camera her new school is “better, only I got no classmates!”
Nicoara shot the film over four years, and her facility with her subjects appears seamless. In one interview, a cute, big-eyed child named Alin is teasingly accused by another kid of stealing food from one of their Romanian classmates. Alin instinctively looks just off-camera—that is, at the filmmakers—to gauge if they believe his friend or not. Of the kids profiled, 17-year-old Dana—who, after months of tests, finds herself in a fifth-grade class—faces the highest hopes from the village parents. She works for the pastor’s wife, a Romanian, gardening in exchange for help with homework and odd cash. But she’s torn, debating whether to keep studying or to marry her boyfriend, and her situation lays bare a dichotomy that exists for women in countless countries. When asked by Nicoara if school and marriage, which is traditional for young Roma women, can go together, Dana’s mother sharply responds, “No.”
Following the introduction of this dilemma, Dana abruptly disappears until the film’s final minutes—a structural decision that seems almost resentful, positing “traditional” Roma culture either as a given, or as unworthy of viewers’ time. The filmmakers spend vastly more time chronicling bigoted remarks from Romanians about gypsy life than they do actual gypsy life, so a minor crisis of perspective hangs over Our School. The many moments of prejudice and narrow-mindedness are woeful (and there are exceptions, just as there are self-hating Roma), but this narrative bent gives the film a certain unintended ruthlessness overall.
Worse yet, in this day and age it’s not exactly hard to find a doc that suffers from maudlin musical cues that work against the precision of its footage, but Our School is inevitably one of them. Rubbing gentle xylophone notes against a backdrop of shanty-houses and (literal) pigsties is probably meant as sympathetic, but comes across as condescending, which is especially leaden for a movie aiming to profile one of Europe’s oldest, bitterest fissures.