The state said they were mentally retarded, but they still got top grades. Pepa taught himself English and Anežka dreamed of working in the courts, while young Karel witnessed the conflict on Matiční street, where they built a wall between Roma and whites.
The documentary film “Walls” is the story of three Romani children and their struggle to get an education and a real chance for their future. It is the true story of how children unexpectedly achieved a historical breakthrough in a situation that has confounded the entire country.
“Walls” was made in the Czech Republic in 1999-2000 by American journalist Arie Farnam and two film students Matt McClean and Dantia MacDonald. They set out to make an independent film about Romani children in Czech schools and ended up documenting the historic moment when children from the “special schools” for the retarded first won entrance to a secondary school and when the entire situation begain to change. The film is shown at American and European universities in courses studying systematic discrimination and social exclusion.
The documentary team followed nine-year-old Karel and fifteen-year-old Pepa and Anežka for a year. The film also encompasses some uncommonly candid interviews with teachers, headmasters and officials about the fate of Romani children in the system of “special schools.” During the film, Karel is a pupil at a special school in the city of Ustí nad Labem when the controversy over the Matiční street wall breaks out. He lives on the Romani side of the fence and he becomes our guide in a world of social conflict, police actions and the first beginnings of a Romani civil rights movement.
Meanwhile, Anežka and Pepa have lived their entire lives in a children’s home and they also attend a special school, where in the ninth grade they are still supposed to be learning to draw simple pictures. However, they have one rare teacher, who believes they have been put there unjustly. Their teacher helps them with extra studies from materials meant for regular schools and, when the law suddenly changes to allow children from special schools to attempt to enter regular secondary schools, Anežka and Pepa go up against the entire system of education.
“Walls” is a documentary about a time when the situation of Romani children in Czech schools had just begun to change. It is at the same time a reminder of a serious problem that continues even though the “special schools” have been renamed, and it is also clear evidence of the progress that has been made against discrimination over the past eight years.
The film was originally intended for an English-speaking audience and includes both English subtitles and English commentary.
After the film there will be a discussion with director/producer Arie Farnam about the making of the film and about how the stories in the film and the entire society have developed since 2000. The famous Roma activist Kumar Vishwanathan is supposed to be part of the dicussion.