Film writer Wendy Gosselin attends the premier of a three-year film project that questions the education system worldwide.
There were two long lines of people waiting to get into the Buenos Aires premier of the documentary film ‘La Educación Prohibida’ (The Prohibited Education). Young people were drinking mate and lighting one another’s cigarettes; older people studied the crowd to try to greet someone they knew. The woman standing next to me was involved in production and very excited to talk more about the film with me. “It’s about the difference between schools and education, about how schools fail children in so many ways, making them into obedient subjects who are capable of little more than reciting what they’ve heard in class. It films educators discussing these issues in eight different countries.”
From what I gauged at the premier, there are two critical aspects of the project ‘La Educación Prohibida’. The first is the way this documentary film was made and distributed and its determination to continue on past the actual screening of the film. The idea was born three years ago when the young and clearly charismatic director Germán Doin (before the film was even shown, he received a standing ovation when he got up to speak) decided to do a short film and post it on youtube. Doin was plagued with what education should mean and what schools actually provide. His video was an invitation to others to pose similar questions, conduct interviews and come onboard the project. The final result is an audiovisual project involving a total of over 150 crew members, actors, filmmakers and artists and 704 co-producers worldwide. Monday marked the film’s premier at 151 independent screening rooms across the world. According to Doin, on Monday alone, 18,000 people had seen the film, a true achievement for a film project of this kind and a triumph for independent productions worldwide.
The second and, in my view, least interesting aspect of the project is the film itself. First of all, the film drags out across an astounding and unnecessary two hours seventeen minutes of fictional interludes, interviews with educators and textbook-like animations. As would be expected of a film with 704 co-producers, the film covers a range of topics that is too broad, covering everything from the history of humanity (rounded off with the classic depiction of the monkey standing up straighter until he at lasts takes on the form of a human male) to the history of education, with stops along the way to include comparisons of babies with tree seedlings (seedlings, it seems, take all the light and water they need from their environment; children would be best left to do the same).
For Doin and his co-producers, apparently, there is nothing worthwhile in today’s mainstream schools, which are basically enormous day care centres. The fictional interludes depict two high school students who claim that their education has taught them nothing and are willing to say as much at a school function, with renowned actor Gastón Pauls as their frustrated but somewhat sympathetic teacher. These are supplemented by actors who play clichéd Draconian teachers who stare straight at the camera and yell. We see elementary school students with their hands tied behind their backs and high school students dressed in grey t-shits reciting lessons in a robotic twang. I could almost hear Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ playing in the background.
These fictional interludes are contrasted with thoughtful onscreen quotes by figures such as Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire, Albert Einstein, and Rudolf Steiner and by real life interviews with more “progressive” educators in the tradition of Waldorf, Kilpatrick, Sudbury and Montessori. They hail from institutions like the Pachamama School in Ecuador, the Ideas School in Colombia and the Red de Educación Libre in Spain: schools with no grades, no exams, and open groups comprised of students of all ages where young people move freely about according to their interests and abilities. The focus, according to these educators, should be on liberty and simultaneous exploration; children correct themselves and teachers limit themselves to serving as helpful guides. However, the few scenes where we actually see “examples” of this type of education are limited to nursery schools where children touch each other and build things out of blocks (doesn’t this happen at nursery schools everywhere?). Other depictions of desirable education are bucolic scenes where children roam free in large green spaces, locations for education that I am hard-pressed to imagine in an urban setting like Buenos Aires. From time to time, childish animations pop up showing frowning stick figures with bubble captions that read: “I am not just a number.”
There are some interesting questions posed by ‘La Educación Prohibida’: school curriculums are often obsolete and out of touch with the real world and many students do get lost in the system and then lose their desire to learn. Yet although we hear plenty from the representatives of the educational institutions where students are supposedly encouraged to explore their own individual potential, the students themselves are absent from the big screen. And in spite of the film’s broad criticism of the school system, real-life public school teachers of the countries surveyed are missing. Couldn’t these teachers have something more to contribute than the atrocious stereotypes we are subject to in their fictional depictions? In terms of the critique of the whole educational system, another glaring omission is the difference between public and private schools. Aren’t private schools more likely to fulfil the mandates of an open, more comprehensive education the co-producers all seem to favour?
What is ultimately “prohibited” in The Prohibited Education is the possibility of examining these questions in a real, in-depth way. This perhaps reflects the age of the production team, who are all aged 21 to 24. I would be very much interested to see what Doin and his crew have to say about education 20 years from now, when they have their own children and are obliged to make certain compromises in terms of their education in order to help them find their own way in the world. Reflections such as these could be summarized in a much shorter and succinct film on the same subject. Ultimately, I am more interested in the way Doin put together an international network to explore his subject and the way he used the digital medium to get it up on the web and spread the word – as of publishing, more than a half million people had downloaded the film from the website – than in the actual film his team of ardent collaborators produced.