Filmmakers and teachers from a south Tel Aviv school were riding high with excitement on Wednesday, a day after it was announced that a film focusing on the lives of its pupils and teachers was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, to be awarded at the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27.
Strangers No More is a 40- minute documentary by American filmmakers Kirk Simon and Karen Goodman that follows the lives of the school’s educators – in particular principal Keren Tal and teacher Smadar Moeres – and takes viewers into the day-to-day lives of three students: Johannes from Ethiopia, Esther from South Africa and Muhammad from Darfur.
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The film covers the span of a school year, and describes the hardships the children faced before coming to Israel, and how the Bialik-Rogozin school has become a sort of safe haven for them in their new home.
Simon told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he heard the good news when he was sitting in his Manhattan apartment on Tuesday night watching the Oscar nominations ceremony.
The TV ceremony only includes the major categories like Best Picture and Best Actor, but when Simon’s phone began “to go crazy with texts and calls coming in simultaneously,” he knew there was good news.
Though it’s his fourth Oscar nomination, Simon said “this nomination is very special to me, as I’ve grown very close to both the teachers and students at the Bialik-Rogozin school.
“I also feel that the added recognition that comes from an Academy Award nomination will help bring needed attention to the issue of helping to keep the children of immigrant workers in Israel. I believe that the mission of the school is worthy of worldwide recognition, and these children should be able to stay and be educated at the school.”
Simon said part of the pride he takes in the film is the way in which it shows a side of Israel not often seen in the global media.
“We have had numerous screenings of the film in New York and Los Angeles.
At every screening, people comment that what is shown in the film is an Israel that they were unfamiliar with – that the film opened their eyes to something that they had no idea existed. So I feel proud to help present a fuller picture of what life in Israel is.”
The school – on Rehov Aliya in the heart of south Tel Aviv – teaches more than 800 children from 48 countries, all brought together through the language of instruction, Hebrew.
Bialik-Rogozin has become famous in Israel over the past year, as the issue of the children of foreign workers and asylum-seekers and their possible deportation has regularly made the headlines.
The film had its Israeli premiere on January 3, before a capacity crowd at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque that included students, teachers and politicians, among them Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, former finance minister Ronnie Bar-On, former interior minister Avraham Poraz, former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman.
The idea to make a film about the lives of the children at Bialik-Rogozin came from Simon and Goodman’s executive producer, Lin Arison, who visited the school during a trip to Israel.
The year-long process of shooting the film required the filmmakers to travel seven times from New York to Tel Aviv, each time staying for about a week. By the end of the year, they were able to earn the trust of the children and their parents, who then allowed them into their lives, which is when “the very meaningful things happened,” Simon said.
Part of the message of the film is that children can succeed regardless of what they’ve been through.
“With most of the kids, when you hear what they’ve been through, it seems like they would be scarred for life. But the movie shows that children have every potential to grow and learn regardless of what they’ve been through,” Simon said.
News of the film’s nomination thrilled Keren Tal, the principal of Bialik- Rogozin, who features prominently throughout the film.
Tal called the news “very, very moving,” and said that the school’s success in educating students from dozens of countries speaking a multitude of languages could not have been made possible without “the best teaching staff in the world” and a great deal of support from the Tel Aviv Municipality and the Education Ministry.
She expressed her joy in that the movie shows a different side of Israeli daily life.
“The school’s message of hope and the way it reminds us of our basic moral values as Jews will now be sent across the world,” Tal said.