(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is the first day of school and a short-haired woman in her late thirties with a Russian accent stands in front of a class of Jerusalem third graders, about half of whom are of Ethiopian descent. In a confident voice, she coaches them on how to greet her and sit up straight. Parents who bring their children late learn to their chagrin that tardiness is not tolerated. The children are scared. The parents are scared.
This is the beginning of Teacher Irena, a remarkable documentary directed by Itamar Chen, that is the opening attraction in the DocAviv Festival tonight (May 6), and will be shown at 8 p.m. at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque. The festival runs through May 15, with over 80 documentaries, both foreign and Israeli, screening mainly at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque but also at several other venues throughout the city, including the Zionist Organization of America building, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Tel Aviv Port. Teacher Irena, which will be shown again on May 14 at 8 p.m. at the ZOA, as well as on May 15 on television on Channel 8 at 9:30 p.m., invites comparison with Laurent Cantet’s The Class, an acclaimed look at a French teacher and his mostly immigrant class in Paris.
Chen, a first-time director who studied at the Sam Spiegel School of Film and Television in Jerusalem, met Irena when he worked as a substitute teacher at the Givat Gonen School in the Katamonim neighborhood and was immediately impressed by her. “I wanted to document the influence she has over her class in one year,” he says, and the film opens with the first day of class and ends on June 30.
“She doesn’t see her pupils as good kids or bad kids,” he says. “She says, ‘I work with wonderful students.’ She feels that, ‘If I am not there for these kids, no one will be,’ so she invests 100 percent of herself in them.”
Indeed, we see Irena coming to school early and staying late to tutor students who need it, and many of them do. When a child has a problem at home, she tackles it herself. A scene in which a mother who is suffering from depression unburdens herself to Irena is truly heart-breaking, while the teacher’s advice to the mother is inspirational: “You must live, you must pull yourself together, so your daughter will have a good life.”
Knowing of this child’s problems, Irena herself organizes a birthday party for the girl. She collects leftover food from school lunches and gives them to an Ethiopian boy whose parents are unemployed. Discovering that few of her children have ever seen the sea, she organizes a field trip to Tel Aviv.
But while she cares for the children’s well-being in every possible way, she is a teacher first and she excels at getting these children, some of whom already have to work part-time, to learn. Radiating positive energy, she gives a math lesson, getting all the children to participate, correcting those who give wrong answers gently, praising any child who makes an effort. When the children are in class, it’s clear from their faces that they are concentrating and thinking. She teaches them “with a mixture of belief in them and love,” says Chen.
However, her single-mindedness often leaves her drained at home as she
cares for her own son. She often finds herself in conflict with
parents, and she seems isolated from her colleagues, sitting silently
at faculty meetings.
Irena, a widowed single mother from the former Soviet Union, has not
seen the film, and is not sure she wants to. “This was not her
initiative, but she agreed to take part because she wanted to encourage
teachers in schools in the periphery or other places where there is
poverty,” says Chen.
“This is not an optimistic or a pessimistic film, but one that reflects
a complex reality. What will be the future of the children in her
class? The hope is that having Irena as their teacher will be a turning
point for them.”
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