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On the Way to School

A first-year teacher from the city assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in an out-of-the-way Kurdish settlement in Turkey.

Orhan Eskikoy and Ozgur Dogan’s exceptional docu “On the Way to School” chronicles a first-year teacher from the city assigned to a one-room schoolhouse in an out-of-the-way Kurdish settlement in Turkey. Eschewing exposition, talking-heads or commentary, the pic hooks into the textures and rhythms of the impoverished community, focusing on the exuberant, often hilarious interactions of the young children with their instructor and each other, only peripherally observing that they are working within a system of cultural oppression that subverts the value of their exchanges. The irresistible combination of adorable tykes, understated social expose and stunning imagery warrants theatrical distribution.

From his arrival, everything in the settlement of Sanliurfa comes as a culture shock to educator Emre on his first teaching assignment. The village has no running water, power outages abound, the land is barren, and the kids don’t always show up for school. But the greatest source of frustration is linguistic: the children cannot speak Turkish and Emre knows no Kurdish (the Turkish title of the film translates literally as “two languages and a suitcase”). Indeed the native Kurdish tongue, not recognized by the state, is strictly verboten in the classroom, a prohibition that Emre enforces unquestioningly.

Admittedly, the teacher’s and students’ mutual incomprehension produces excellent comedy, with the filmmakers focusing on a handful of particularly expressive toddlers. As Emre points to a picture of a bear and is greeted by a barrage of left-field guesses from “duck” to “watermelon,” the scene recalls Hal Roach “Our Gang” two-reelers. But here the miscommunication is endemic. Learning to sound out and write a strange language in order to perform rote recitations of nationalistic Turkish pledges feels more like propaganda than education, and helmers Eskikoy and Dogan allow this realization to build imperceptibly.

The film creates a fascinating tension between the larger political context of the classroom curriculum and the positive interaction between the tots and their teacher. It is the spontaneity of the kids’ reactions and their supreme lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera that give “School” its charm and power — the inferences about Turkey’s policy toward its Kurdish minority inextricably tied to the wide-eyed amazement, shy squirmings or puzzled looks of these vulnerable first-graders.

Lensed mainly in extended static shots, any formal teacher-student interplay soon devolves into casual intimacy as Emre squats down to, say, draw an apple, or as students swarm around his desk to seek approval for their efforts. Even when the filmmakers venture into students’ homes, the fixed camera positions maintain a respectful distance at a room’s threshold, as kids and animals freely walk, run, crawl or tumble through the frame.

On the Way to School

Turkey-Netherlands

  • Production: A Tiglon release (Turkey) of a Peri-San Film production in co-production with Pieter Van Huystee Film and Television. Produced by Orhan Eskikoy, Ozgur Dogan. Co-producer, Pieter Van Huystee. Directed by Orhan Eskikoy, Ozgur Dogan.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD-to-35mm), Eskikoy; editors, Eskikoy, Thomas Balkenhol; sound, Ozgur Dogan, Zeynel Dogan; sound designer, Erik Griekspoor; assistant director, Asli Soyumert. Reviewed at New York Turkish Film Festival, Dec. 4, 2010. (Also in 2009 Middle East, Sarajevo, Edinburgh film festivals; 2008 Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 77 MIN.
  • With: With: Emre Aydin, Zulkuf Yildirim, Zulkuf Huz, Velip Huz, Rojda Huz, Devran Huz. (Turkish, Kurdish dialogue)