The Arty Semite

Tel Aviv School No 'Stranger' to the Oscars

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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The crowded hallways of the Bialik-Rogozin school in gritty South Tel Aviv are about as far from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood as one can imagine.

Courtesy Simon & Goodman Picture Company

But on the evening of the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27, the school’s principal, Keren Tal, will make the transition from those hallways to the red carpet, as she walks alongside filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman. Tal, along with the teachers and students of her school, are the stars of a 40-minute documentary “Strangers No More,” which is nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category.

Bialik-Rogozin is not your typical Israeli school. On the campus, 800 children from more than 48 countries in grades K-12 are educated, many entering school with no understanding of Hebrew.

“Here, Christians, Jews and Muslims study together,” declares principal Keren Tal in the film. “In education, there are no strangers.”

For some of the students, it is the first opportunity to sit in a classroom they have ever had. The film examines the traumatic circumstances that brought these children to Israel — many fled from poverty, hunger and war — and the process of their integration into their new home. Several children at the school have been in the national spotlight recently, as political debate has raged in Israel over the morality of deporting the children of illegal workers.

“Strangers No More” focuses on three students and their year-long educational journey over the 2009-2010 school year. Mohammed is a 16-year-old refugee from Darfur who escaped alone through Egypt to Israel after witnessing the killing of his father and his grandmother, and he embraces his first opportunity to attend school. He is so eager to make up for lost time that he completes four years of academic work in a single year.

Johannes, age 12, spent most of his life in refugee camps after fleeing Eritrea, and also enters the classroom for the first time, while his father struggles to obtain a work visa to support them. Nine-year-old Esther and her father came to Israel from South Africa after her mother was killed, an experience which still traumatizes her.

“We just had to find a safe place,” Esther explains simply. The film shows how Bialik-Rogozin becomes that safe place for them, and how they connect and learn to trust their Israeli teachers despite the barriers of language and culture.

A trip to the Oscars is nothing new for producer-directors Simon and Goodman — it is the fourth nomination for a team that has made more than 20 documentaries together. But the New York-based filmmakers said the 15 months they spent following the teachers and students at Bialik-Rogozin was a unique filmmaking experience.

From the first moment they visited the school, Simon recalled, they were sold on the idea of capturing it on film. “As soon as you walk in the front door, you see the faces, the flags from all over the world, you hear the children singing, you see what a remarkable place it is. We immediately fell in love.”

As New Yorkers, who were only familiar with the war and strife on the news, life inside Bialik-Rogozin was a revelation.”Tolerance and peace is a way of life for these children and this school. It is completely ironic, in one of the most stressful regions of the world, that such an oasis exists.” At screenings, she said “people are surprised that such a secular and tolerant school could exist in a place like Israel.”

Goodman says that the children at the school are “over the moon” about the Oscar nomination — at a special screening at the Tel Aviv Cinemateque, the three stars leapt onstage and took a bow at the end — and will be watching the ceremony with their fingers crossed. Goodman and Simon are excited that Tal will accompany them to the ceremony. “She is a dedicated and remarkable principal, who somehow manages to provide both an education and a protective environment for these kids. Many donations come into the school, and if the children need help — whether it is with food, clothing or emotional support, they receive it. She takes a very holistic approach. And she, like the rest of the teachers, arrive at the school early and stay late. They are utterly committed.”

Watch the trailer for ‘Strangers No More’:


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