by Becky Tan
A grade school in Hamburg St. Pauli collected enough money to finance violin lessons for children in grades two to four. The teacher, Gino Romero Ramirez, developed lessons to appeal to all children. For example, he placed pieces of paper with large drawings of penguin feet in a large circle. This is where the children were to stand with their feet in this exact position. Playing the violin is not necessarily on every child’s “to-do” list, but Gino enthusiastically touched something in each child, so that it was willing to try. No child left in angry frustration; some children showed real musical talent. “Old MacDonald had a farm” never sounded better.
For three years director Barbara Metzlaff (photo above), with Alexandra Gramatke, documented these lessons for their film 20 Geigen auf St. Pauli. By the fourth grade, some pupils who showed exceptional promise began extra lessons with other children in a neighboring school on an advanced level. Teacher Gino originally came from Colombia, Central America, to study music in Hamburg. He was especially delighted to receive this opportunity to develop violin instruction in grade school. The film’s title is 20 Violins in St. Pauli, but at the Filmfest premiere, more than 30 children played the violin on the stage of Abaton Cinema for their admiring parents and teachers. This is a wonderful, must-see film but leave your small children at home. The eight-year-old girl sitting beside me whined throughout the entire 75 minutes, even though her father bought her extra treats from the lobby. He should have sent her to a 3D animation and watched the film by himself.
One impression, which was probably unintended by the filmmakers, was that in this group of immigrants from Turkey, Eastern Europe, Africa, etc., the few Germans were at the bottom of the social ladder, struggling and hopeless. On the other hand, the child of a Turkish family was truly talented. On a home visit, his mother played a native string instrument. She and her husband spoke accent-free German and seemed very intelligent. I felt that this family’s next generation will no longer be in St. Pauli, but rather Blankenese.
This film touched upon several problems involved with schools and teachers, which also appeared in other Filmfest films. For example, Gino was worried about his future. Where would he go when this contract, or even his residency permit, ran out? In order to plan, he accepted a teaching job in Berlin and then was faced with the move from his St. Pauli apartment. In the end, after numerous petitions from teachers, friends, and parents, the Hamburg Schulbehörde extended his contract, so that he could stay. He never let his personal worries influence his interaction with the children. They only knew him as generous, friendly, and patient but strict. He did not burden them with his problems, which is as it should be.
However, in two other films, the teacher’s problems overshadowed the welfare of the children. In Monsieur Lazhar (photo above) a small boy walks through the halls of his school, looks into his classroom and discovers his teacher hanging from the ceiling, a sure case of suicide. The class is traumatized and Monsieur Lazhar, who has lost his family in Algeria and immigrated to Canada, must reintegrate them. Even his problems are not totally invisible to the children. In Terri the school principal Mr. Fitzgerald gives 15-year-old Terri extra attention to help him adjust to school and life in general. But it is Terri who finds his principal on the school parking lot where he has spent the night in his car after an argument with his wife. Why should Terri (photo below) have to cope with this adult’s problems? In King of Devil’s Island, the students suffer abuse from the teachers, partly because a hundred years ago there were old-fashioned standards of discipline, but the teachers also let their personal problems flow into their treatment of the children. For example, the principal is under stress. He has to kowtow to the financial pillars of this home for delinquents and, also, his wife has left him. Another teacher is a secret paedophile and trades favor for favor.
Teachers should not let their personal problems reach the children. Although one exception would be in the original version of Fame (not a festival film) in which the egoistical student makes demands on his teacher while she is waiting in the hospital for her ill husband. She abruptly opens his eyes to her own personal suffering, and he learns a good lesson.
In 20 Geigen auf St. Pauli, the children are delighted with themselves and are so happy to see Gino, that they give him a big hug. In one case, a Chinese child, who has emigrated from Indonesia with his family, is not able to make the trip from his school to extra lessons in another school, so Gino drives him in his car. Hugging and transporting could be very intimate situations, but there is no protest from the parents or the school.
However, in Monsieur Lazhar and in Detachment (where a man struggles as a substitute teacher in a high school) children spontaneously hug their teachers for joy. In both cases the teachers stand to lose their jobs, as physical contact of any kind in the countries of these films (Canada and the U.S.), is absolutely verboten. Looking at my own experiences after 33 years in a Hamburg school, I ask: what is a teacher to do - push the child away, pat him on the back, stand stiff as a board, hands in the air. I say, “Give me a high five,” and that defuses the situation, but it is not a good solution.
Other festival films touched on school days. A Trip brings together three high school graduates before they go their different ways. They search for a souvenir that they had buried on their graduation day. In The Help the educators are black women with less than a sixth grade diploma. They raise strange children much better than their educated, rich, spoiled mothers could do. All they need are simple words for a frightened child: “You are kind; you are smart; you are important.” These children never know the personal problems of their educators, until they are themselves grown up, although, luckily, hugging is allowed.