Educating the Other
Documentary steps inside one-room Cretan schoolhouse with a difference
The was once a one-room schoolhouse in the mountains of Crete. Within its four walls a fatherly, patient teacher taught a shy Greek boy named Yiorgos and his best friends - a handful of Albanian children. While the children play and learn, the grownups in the background talk. They, discuss the pros and cons of having (and being) immigrants. The village priest says he encouraged the newly-baptised Albanian children to enrol in school. The Albanian parents dream of a better life.
Director Lucia Rikaki says she wanted to capture a “positive example of coexistence” in new documentary The other. Her film shows the world inside Patsideros village’s elementary school, an 1873 schoolhouse in Iraklio prefecture. Before closing recently, it was the only school in Greece to have all non-Greek students, except one. Shot by the director (and sometimes the children) in intimate handheld video, the film is to Greece what countryside school portrait To be and to have was to France. Rikaki travelled to the village once a month over two years to make The other.
Like the French film, this one follows the seasons, from snowy peaks to yellow fields of wheat. The idyllic tone is also set by a remarkably nurturing teacher. Yiannis Fragiadakis, who seems to be the only Greek adult in the village under 60, explains that he returned there to teach in the same school where he was once a pupil knowing “a challenge” was ahead. He’s as open-minded a teacher as the students could ever hope for, teaching the mostly eight- and nine-year olds the three Rs and Greek customs, yet acknowledging their heritage. He asks the children: “What does the word ‘Albania’ mean?” When they shrug, he gives the answer. ‘The Land of the Eagles”.
Fragiadakis’ students are: nature- loving Yiorgos; clever, burly Armando; grinning Despina; spunky Angela; and firecracker Andreas. The camera explores the school’s microcosm, but also penetrates their home worlds. Though the parents are more resistant to the camera than the youngsters, their words give a strong sense of where the children are from and where they might be going. The other captures the new Greekr Albanian fusion, as the children switch languages and cultural references with ease. Some speak Albanian at home, others Greek. Though their parents often struggle with the Greek language, the children speak it fluently, with charming Cretan accents. On the same night, they enjoy Greek dances in a village square and then listen to their parents harmonising to an Albanian song that says, “Leaving our homeland is damnation...”
For old and young, converting to Christianity - and taking on new names - is a key ingredient to fitting into Greek society. In one scene, a family proudly watches the videotape of a baptism. Astute Armando indicates that though their religion has changed, perhaps it is not as black- and-white as one would think. He explains: “There is only one God, but the countries have divided him into parts.” Despina says her Greek name “is prettier than the name I used to have” - Anita. The village priest Father Manolis explains: “A new society is being formed. Fifteen years later, these kids will be members of society.” In this case - whether good or bad - the need to fit in required new identities.
Though everyone is trying to present their best side to the camera, sometimes the people in the film aren’t very politically correct, which makes the film more honest and thought- provoking. Yiorgos’ ruddy father is the only Patsideros Greek who sends his child to the school instead of to a different village. Yet he says he’d “gladly wipe out all Albanians”. In contemplating Greece’s increased number of immigrants, he says: “I can’t figure out what’s going on.” The village priest may have taught one of the girls Greek in just three months, but he says he doesn’t think non-Greeks should carry the flag in national holiday parades. In the film, to avoid the inevitable negative media coverage, the schoolteacher opted to make Yiorgos carry the flag on March 25. ‘The others” are alongside, celebrating with their miniature blue-and-white flags.
Peaceful parades are one thing. Living together is another. In one of the most poignant moments of the low-key film, buddies Yiorgos and Andreas have quarrelled. With all his classmates watching, tear-stained Yiorgos holds out his arm to shake and make up. Finally, Andreas lifts up his little hand, and all is well again. Other memorable little moments are shot by the children themselves. Rikaki includes mini-scenes, where the children are obviously behind the camera. One shot captures a loving glance from a mother. Another records an unrestrained girlish dance.
As the seasons turn and the 74- minute film comes to an end, disappointment sets in. It’ll soon be over - not just the film, but the idyllic school. Rikaki reports that the school closed in November 2004, the .Albanian children have gone to other cities, and now all the Greek children in the village commute to other schools. Nonetheless, in the film - dedicated to her teacher father, who emigrated to Germany -, Rikaki gives a glimpse of what “might be”.
By Angelice Kontis