This is a transcript of Mona Nicoară‘s keynote speech for The Power of Storytelling 2013, the yearly conference on narrative organized by Decât o Revistă in Bucharest, Romania. A documentary film director, producer and writer, Mona started her career by mixing creative work with human rights activism. She directed and produced Our School, which won numerous awards at festivals worldwide.
KEYNOTE: The Boundaries of the Storyteller
As a filmmaker, some of you probably expect me to use film, but I won’t do that. I think, actually, the filming part is the easy part and using media is the easy part of filmmaking. The hard thing for me is actually finding the story and figuring out your own position in the story.
My activist interest and my documentary filmmaking interest widely diverge. Even though they look like they come from the same place, they end up in two very, very different places.
Human rights is a trade as much as it is a vocation, and by trade I mean both skill and exchange. What we exchange as human rights activism, what we deal in, what we trade in, is stories. We collect the stories of victims, shape them to fit the vessels of international standards and bodies who stand in stern judgment and we get something back. What we get back, always, is words. The action happens on the ground, but what we really get back from activism is first and foremost words. Words to live by, to be fair; standards and laws that are letting with meaning and content, but they’re words on paper. What we give in exchange for these words are more words. It’s just a trade concentrating words: reports, cases, cases files, Amicus briefs, positions papers, press releases, Amnesty International letters, names at the end of petitions, it’s all words.
I wrote these words and I still do and I do believe there is value in them. But it was actually, these kinds of words, a human rights report that I was asked to help edit in 2004 that gave me pause in terms of what was I doing and the value of what I was doing. It was a two volumes report on special education for people with intellectual disabilities in central and Eastern Europe. It was an epic, massive, two year undertaking. By that time I had done a lot of similar work on education of Roma. Particularly school segregation, from ghetto schools, which are born either out of the straight-out racism or white flight, separate catch-up classes which are never actually meant to catch up. It goes all the way to streaming Roma children systemically into specials schools intended for children with intellectual disabilities. And those Roma children end up there not because they are disabled, but just simply because they are Roma.
The report was all the good things human rights reports should be. It was rigorous, it was comprehensive, it recounted lots of solid cases and identified large patterns of abuse. It promised to be, in a phrase dear to the human rights world, a watershed. The reported good stories, told with passion, carried the outrage that we ourselves felt on the ground as we were doing research. It made us feel like there is a way of telling right from wrong and it had recommendations: those great things that point the way forward and look towards solutions. Yet as my colleagues and I tried to edit it, we had to admit to that sinking feeling that we may well be the first and last people to actually read those two volumes, those two bricks. And it wasn’t just the length.
The report failed however to capture our own experience of the system, not the victim’s experience of the system, but our own experience of the system as participants in the system. It failed to capture the complex moral choices that we have to make every day as parents, school administrators, teachers, and even students. That is something that you can’t do just by analyzing the system or reading through abuses. It is something to have to muddle your way through, on a minute by minute basis and still end somewhere on a Friday night with a very uneasy feeling with yourself.
I learned that the things are more complicated the hard way, on my own skin, as Romanians say.
I was living in Budapest at the time and we were getting ready to put my oldest son in school. We visited various schools available to us. We found ourselves confronted with a very uneasy choice. Did we want our son to be in the good class, populated by very nicely dressed, most of them blonde kids, in a school that also had a special education class, that was populated by a lot darker skinned kids. How would my kid feel being in that class? Because I definitely did not want him to be in the special education class. He did not belong there, just like probably many of those kids did not belong there. I also didn’t want him to go down the block to what was actually known as a ghetto school. Did he belong in the American school just because he has an American passport? My husband is American. Some school administrators and some officials in Budapest believed that was the case. Our bank account (it’s a private school) begged to differ. We also worried about of how he would feel — the kid of human rights activists — among the kids of the four prophets. Going through these choices I realized that even I, who thought I knew what was right and what was wrong, in theory, and I knew what the systemic solutions were, I was editing those recommendations. I was still stumped. I was stumped by simple, daily choice. I actually wanted to tell that story, it is not an easy story to tell, in fact it is profoundly uneasy.
And film seemed like a good idea at that time. I had some experience from a previous documentary film adventure, I put together a crew, my co-director, who is a television journalist, quite experienced, a wonderfully sensitive director of photography and I engaged from the very beginning a film editor who’s a true artist.
I knew that, if done right, a film had the potential to reach more people than a report. That is easy. My instinct told me that telling a small story with real characters often moves people to understanding a lot more than a general lesson in law and morality. So in we waltzed, into the small town of Târgu Lăpuș, a picturesque location where Roma children were supposed to be moved from a run-down ghetto school into a mainstream school. We explained the project, we explained our own background, we introduced ourselves, got the cooperation of everybody in the community, allowed ourselves to be charmed by the kids and their families, found our participants and just set out to work.
It all went smoothly until things started to fall apart.
It quickly became clear the the Roma kids were failing in the mainstream school. After very few months of shooting, we realized that was a generalized understanding in the town that the integration project was supposed to be just that – a project, a temporary measure that was expected to fail. And that is where our own internal conflicts began.
My co-director, a journalist, by background and instinct wanted to follow the money; she wanted a piece of investigative journalism, an exposé that points a firm finger in the direction of the responsible party. The problem was the responsible party was hard to identify, even after spending a year shooting in the small town of Târgu Lăpuș, because blame hung low like fog over the entire community and beyond, all the way to the funders in Brussels. It was also difficult to connect responsibility with intention, to find why this was actually happening, and whether it was happening intentionally. We, as Romanians, tend to be particularly unaware of the baggage we inherit from our history, from our family, and our role in trafficking it along, let alone aware of its consequences.
The human rights activist in me wanted to build a case, an egregious abuse against worthy victims trapped in an unjust system. The problem was that our victims, like all of us, were no simple poster children. They were children, but not poster children. Reducing them to poster children would have done a great injustice to them, to the story and to the audience. Those people are always onto you. While I like a good cause as much as the next person, I also have strong memories of coming out of straight, issue films, feeling violated rather than persuaded very often. Or feeling contrarian, Supersize Me actually made me want to go to McDonald’s. I had, on occasion, God forbid, a hankering for dolphin meat, just because of contrarian feelings, feeling manipulated by a documentary film.
The third person of our crew was our director of photography, my camera guy, Ovidiu, who was lost, fascinated with the little things. Details of daily life, the morning wash, the beautiful hills in which our harrow was set, the inept ways of seven-year-olds playing soccer. None of these things were relevant to our topic: school segregation. Let alone newsworthy in any way. Yet that’s really where we found our story. It had no urgency, no new outrage, it was as they say a small story. If it turned out to be anything, I think it turned out to be more like a novel, a story that you can get lost in, whose details you can populate with your own understanding and your own experience and your own emotional truth. It was a simple, emotional story which we get to experience as our own, even as we follow from a great distance these Roma kids in a very small town, somewhere in Transylvania. The story, however, it does not revolve around these Roma kids. It revolves around us, it is our story, it is the story of the non-Roma, whose choices, whose action or inactions, whose small daily gesture and unexamined reflexes affect the Roma kids who lead our narrative. It is ultimately the story I believe needed to be told to understand the school choice for my own son back in Budapest. It is less a story about victims than it is a story of perpetrators.
Now we have this nice conference that is themed around stories for good. And when we think of stories for good, we like to focus on the victims. When you pick up the program, the brochure for any documentary film festival, the vast majority of it looks like an ad for a development agency. Victims make us feel sorry and that makes us to feel good. It makes us feel like good people. That has become ingrained in our culture. We have names for it, various names: Live Aid, white savoir complex. We have become numb, however, to the stories of victims. These days we do not have to go to a Live Aid, we don’t have to go to a rock concert to make poverty history. You tweet about it, you click a like button, you’re done, and you feel a lot better about yourself. We are also comfortable with victims, which makes us feel forget them easily. We forget what really moves something in us.
I’m not talking about being moved by Kant reflexive feelings, anger, pity, outrage. I am talking about discovering, being surprised, changed, experiencing emotion that is not ready made. Emotion that allows us to understand something new, to make room for something new inside ourselves. We forget facts, we forget figures, but we do not forget emotions; we do not have to Google them. In our daily lives, most of us are as much victims as we are perpetrators. In small and in large ways that we may not be aware of, always. We never, almost never in fact, think of ourselves as perpetrators. Naturally we do not like to think of ourselves as wrong doers. When we do, it makes us feel uneasy, we do not have a ready-made reaction, we have to search within ourselves and ransack unknown recesses of being. Romania loves to think of itself as a victim, constantly. Our entire education system has told us that we have been victims and never aggressors, in our history. So, it is a trick of the mind and a trick of the heart to think of what we have done in the course of our history or in the course of last Tuesday for that matter.
I experienced that feeling of being a perpetrator when I was researching the school choice for my son. That is the emotional core of what I wanted to do when I set out to make the film. After four years of shooting, two years of editing and what seems like two hundred years of fundraising, I think we got there. When we had our Tribeca premiere in New York, we had a teacher from a regular public school in New York saying: „That’s me in that film, I have done that all my life. I have been putting minority and immigrants kids in special education.” And it was a very strange moment of recognition for her. She says she had done that reflexively all her life, she had no idea what our film was about, except that the title, Our School said maybe „I should see that”, she barely read the synopsis before coming and she was actually shaken by the experience of recognizing herself in the teachers and school administrators in Târgu Lăpuș, Maramureș.
I realized that we got there, at Transylvania Film Festival, which is only two hours south of Târgu Lăpuș and the kids who participated in our film were able to come to the premiere and they got a standing ovation from the mostly Romanian audience. One of the kids, Dana, the oldest, grabbed the mike from me and started the Q&A by telling the audience „I am very happy for you that you liked the film.”
We may have not changed the world with our film, but with some luck, we change something in a few people and I think, for a film, and even for an activist, I count that a success. I do not have metrics for it, I only have anecdotes, but I really like those anecdotes. They tell me something that I did not know before, about how film activism works, about impact, about what change really means.
So, to conclude, here are some things that I learned along the way, I’m going to lay them out there for you in case these are helpful to you. Things not to do:
> Try not to mistake emotions from sentimentality. Emotion comes within ourselves and often without our knowledge; it is a discovery. Sentimentality is easily rejected, it is a grid that is imposed, a veneer, a reading pattern that is imposed on reality and the audience sees through that very easily. They are not stupid, audiences. In fact, it’s always safe to assume that they are a lot smarter than you.
> Try not to simplify. We live in a viral, media-rich world, and the temptation of the TED talks and the up-worthy snippets is strong. But that kind of idea marketing is very short lived and dissipates very easily. For me it has a very similar effect as internet porn. By providing partial solutions, that kinds of short format, uplifting storytelling leaves you mired in action. I often wonder: if Africa’s problems can be solved by a solar stove or by giving every girl a cow, or by a one dollar mosquito net, then why there are those problems still in many of those countries? If a mother’s half-page note to her gay son who came out on Facebook will melt the heart of every person who reads it, why is the world full of homophobes who won’t click on the damn thing?
> Try not to focus on the big picture. The big picture is a cop-out, it is what you already know. It is also what your audience already knows. So naturally it is the first thing they dismiss, see through, and move beyond. It is the first thing we dismiss too, by the way. It is also the last thing that we can be made to care about because the big picture is, well, big and kind of unwieldy. It very often makes us throw our hands up in the air „what we gonna do? It is a big problem”. The big picture does not surprise us. We very often know the big picture. It does not move us, it does not force us to connect differently, to examine our own preconceived notions from a different angle or to have a surprise encounter with ourselves.
* The Power of Storytelling will return with a fourth edition on Oct. 17-18, 2014, in Bucharest, Romania.