Film about south TA school gets Oscar nomination

“Strangers No More,” looking into lives of educators and their students from Africa gets nod in Best Documentary Short category.

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 the school’s students and teachers was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, to be awarded at the 83rd Academy Awards on February 27th.

“Strangers No More” is a 40-minute documentary created 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 Mohammed from Darfur. 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 newfound home.

Filmmaker Kirk Simon told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he heard the good news when he was sitting in his Manhattan apartment 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 time being nominated for an Oscar, 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 world wide recognition and these children should be able to stay and be educated at the School.”

Simon said part of the pride he feels towards the film is the way in which it shows a different 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 Aliyah street in the heart of South Tel Aviv teaches over 800 students from 48 countries around the world, all of them brought together through the language of instruction, Hebrew. The school has become very 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 been on the front-page of Israeli newspapers.

The film held its Israeli premiere on January 3rd, before a capacity-crowd at Tel Aviv’s Cinematheque, which was attended by students, teachers, and politicians including Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, Former finance minister Roni Bar-On, Former interior minister Avraham Poraz, Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, and one-time Israel ambassador to the United Nations Danny Gillerman.

The idea to make a film about the lives of the children at Bialik-Rogizin came from Simon and Goodman’s executive producer Lin Arison, who visited the school during a trip to Israel. Thus began a year long process of shooting the film, which required the filmmakers to travel seven times from New York to Tel Aviv, each time staying for about a week to film. 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 also the fact 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 the life. But the movie shows that children have every potential to grow and learn regardless of what they’ve been through,” Simon said.

Karen Goodman shared Simon’s elation at the movie’s nomination Tuesday, and described filming on location at the Bialik-Rogozin school as “one of the most uplifting experiences in my career.”

Goodman added that “just seeing what went on there on a daily basis put a smile on my face.  The harder part was gaining the trust of the students to reveal what could be difficult stories from their past, which was necessary to put this story in context. Over time, we became accepted by them, and the teachers.  I miss them all!”

News of the film’s nomination Tuesday thrilled Karen 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 different countries speaking a multitude of languages could not have been made possible without “the best teaching staff in the world” and what she said was a great deal of support from the city of Tel Aviv and the Education Ministry.

She also expressed her joy that the movie shows a different side of Israeli daily life, and added “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.”