The troubling state of Egypt’s education system uncovered in two short films

Sara Elkamel, Monday 21 Jan 2013

Two documentaries on the harsh conditions of Egyptian public schools on both the kids and the teachers were screened Sunday night - with plans for more screenings

This week, the downtown venue of Messaha Foundation for Community Development hosted a screening of two short films by emerging filmmakers Shereen Talaat and Chakir Lakhlifi, addressing the catastrophic state of Egypt’s education system, with particular focus on violence and abuse in the classroom.

The first documentary entitled Ordinary Day, directed by Chakir Lakhlifi, echoed the students' frustrations over their teachers’ use of violence.

The second film, directed by Shereen Talaat, showcases the other side of the story; in ABC the teachers disclose the day-to-day aggravations.

Both documentaries were produced in 2010, months before the January 25 Revolution, filmmaker Sherin Talaat tells Ahram Online.

Talaat’s films zoom in on different forms of violence pervading modern-day Egyptian society. Her spouse, Moroccan filmmaker Chakir Lakhlifi, explains that he enjoys working with documentary films because it is “the most honest kind of cinema.”

The first film, screened Sunday night to a small audience of around 15, enunciated the frustrations of teenage school students with the physical abuse they experience daily at the hands of their teachers. Following a prelude showing a boy getting ready for school, the Ordinary Day is split in three; the first part features individual interviews with students, who are outspoken and rather eloquent in their statements, which emphasise that they “don’t want abuse.”

The second half of the documentary features a group of girls in an art class, painting away their frustrations with their teachers. The third part is a poignant account by the mother of Seif, a boy with leukaemia who happened to be beaten viciously by one of his teachers.

“The cane in his hand is terrorism,” says the mother, who looks grief stricken and fearful for her son’s future. “Every day, [when my son leaves for school] I don’t know if he will come back to me or not.”

Just when you’re ready to condemn teachers for their inexplicably harsh treatment of students, the second documentary is screened.

In ABC, Shereen Talaat tells the story of a group of public school teachers. The documentary presents a range of possible causes for their rough attitudes and creates sympathy for the demonised teachers.

The film exposes that teachers are driven to harsh tactics such as severe punishment in the form of beating or verbal abuse, often as a reflection of the harsh working environment they are forced to operate within. Poor wages, as low as LE 200 per month, governmental apathy, and low morale contribute to a generally destructive ethos. “I don’t know if education in Egypt could be any worse,” one teacher says.

The documentary reveals disturbing anecdotes, including one teacher’s painful memory of instructing a class consisting of 137 students; “that, in itself, is violence,” he says.

The interviewed teachers express their anger at the media’s one-sided coverage, which they say tirelessly depicts teachers as violent villains. This documentary gives them a human face. Viewed after the first film, ABC serves to counterbalance the narrow image of education disseminated in the media, which typically spotlights the teachers’ faults.

Talaat explains that such documentaries serve to expose realities and not to present solutions. Still, the filmmakers are part of a movement dubbed “The Lotus Revolution." This movement also created the Askar Kazeboon (Lying Soldiers) initiative, which holds screenings across the Cairo streets and elsewhere in make-shift open-door cinemas, exposing the violations by the military after the fall of the Mubarak regime.

Similarly, Talaat hopes to screen the education documentaries in different venues and sidewalks across Cairo and Alexandria in upcoming months to generate public interest for the cause. The filmmaker believes that real change requires “radical movement.”

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