“It was a magical moment; there is no better way to describe it.”
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Filmmaker Karen Goodman was breathless when speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Monday, hours after Strangers No More, the film she and Kirk Simon made about the children of foreign workers and refugees at Tel Aviv’s Bialik- Rogozin school, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
“We’ve been nominated four times before, but we really had our hopes up this time for the school, Israel, and for the kids, hoping that the world would get to see the film’s message,” she said.
Goodman said she hoped that following the Oscar win, “the spotlight will shine on the school, and the world will see it as an example of hope and tolerance.”
Strangers No More is a 40-minute documentary on the lives of Bialik-Rogozin’s educators, in particular principal Keren Tal and teacher Smadar Moeres, and shows the day-to-day lives of three pupils: Johannes from Ethiopia, Esther from South Africa, and Muhammad from Darfur. The film was shot over the course of a school year and depicts the turmoil and heartbreak faced by the children en route to Israel, their struggle through social, cultural and economic hardship, as well as language difficulties, and how the school has become a haven for them in the country.
Located in South Tel Aviv near the central bus station, Bialik-Rogozin teaches more than 800 kids from 48 countries, all of them studying in Hebrew, which serves as a sort of unifier for the children from scattered backgrounds.
While the issue isn’t covered in the movie, the school has become known in Israel because 120 of its pupils face deportation in the wake of a cabinet decision issued last July.
Bialik-Rogozin’s 120 students are among the approximately 400 children nationwide who are slated to be deported.
While the school is currently gripped with elation over the Oscar victory, soon enough, impending deportations will again be center stage. Still, the issue seemed a distant concern on Monday morning at Bialik-Rogozin, where a festive celebration hosted teachers, pupils and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai. In one of the corridors, photographers, well-wishers and students crowded around a flat-screen TV showing the film, as a group of elementary school kids giggled at the portrayal of Eritrean Johannes’s gleefully acquiring a set of eyeglasses bought for him by his teacher.
Following his visit to the school on Monday, Huldai issued a statement praising the film.
“In a world of cynicism, alienation and hatred, this movie proves in the most direct and convincing way that there is the chance for a better world,” he said. “Whoever finished watching the movie with dry eyes has some sort of problems with their tear ducts.”
Huldai said the movie was “the ultimate calling card for Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Israel to present to the world. After reports have been issued ad nauseam about Israel the occupying, brutal country that tramples human rights, it’s necessary that the world learns of this side of Israel, the beautiful Israel.”
Filmmaker Simon told the Post
on Monday, “It feels fantastic to win the Oscar for Documentary Short.
“It is important to tell the story of the miraculous work that is being done at the Bialik Rogizin school,” he went on. “The image of children from 48 countries coming together for education is a story of hope and peace. It’s an uplifting story that the world needs to hear.”
When asked what he hoped the movie’s win would mean for the children of Bialik-Rogozin, specifically those facing deportation, Simon expressed hope that “bringing international attention to the school would help to remove that threat of deportation.”
He also spoke about how much he had enjoyed walking the red carpet with Tal, who flew to Los Angeles to attend the award ceremony.
The accolades for Bialik-Rogozin also poured in from Jerusalem, with President Shimon Peres calling Tal by telephone to praise her for the international recognition the school’s work had brought to Israel.
Peres told the principal that the praiseworthy work of the school as illustrated in the film had brought international recognition to Israel, and had cast a beam of light on the country’s humanity. The president thanked Tal and the producers of the film for bringing such unexpected joy to Israel.
The work of the school is exceptional, and the film depicts a great human interest and humanitarian story, he said.
Peres visited the school some 18 months ago and was extremely impressed. More recently, he was given a private screening of the film.
According to the president’s spokeswoman, the school has a special place in his heart.
Following the announcement of the Oscar win, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel called for the government to formulate a policy for taking care of those children who face deportation, especially after reports last week that the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority had built a detention facility at Ben- Gurion Airport for foreign workers and their children.
The association’s statement mentioned in particular the plight of 10-year-old Esther Aikpaehae from South Africa, who, along with her father, Emanuel, is slated for deportation.
“Ten-year-old Esther, who starred in the movie, is facing probable deportation alongside an estimated 120 pupils from her school.
Esther fled from South Africa and arrived in Israel with her father four years ago – thus missing the five-year mark set as a condition [for] remaining in the country,” the statement read.
“Though the Interior Ministry is obligated to publish its policies, it has refused thus far to answer questions concerning the future operation of the detention center at the airport and the deportation procedures in general and those pertaining to children in particular. The only concrete information received at present are photo shots of swings and slides set up in the airport’s detention center,” it continued.
“The authorities have refused to elaborate how they are planning to care for the hundreds of children and provide needed protection in such exceptionally delicate and difficult circumstances,” stated ACRI.Greer Fay Cashman contributed to this report.