The documentary ‘On The Way To School’, directed by Frenchman Pascal Plisson, follows four children on their long and challenging journeys to school. We watch Jackson (10) and his younger sister navigate their way through rural Kenyan, constantly on guard for elephant attacks. In Argentina, we follow Carlito (11) as he rides his horse through the Patagonian mountains, his sister tightly holding onto him. In Morocco, we meet twelve-year old Zahira, as she prepares herself and her friends for their joint walk of twenty-two kilometers. And then there is Samuel, an eleven-year-old physically disabled student from the Bay of Bengal, who relies on his brothers to reach his destination. They push and pull Samuel’s broken wheelchair through potholes, wetlands and uneven roads before they –impressively and inventively- eventually drop him off in class.
According to the Hollywood Reporter and other reviewers, ‘On The Way To School’ teaches Western children a lesson, which is spelled out for them in the movie’s very first minute:
Too often we forget how lucky we are to go to school. In certain parts of the world the journey to school is an obstacle course and knowledge is a conquest. Every morning, sometimes at the risk of their own lives, heroic children embark on a journey toward knowledge.
The film, as the Hollywood Reporter has it, is about “hammering home [this] main message with all the subtlety of an elephant stampede” and serves as “a lesson for those kids (you know who you are!) who try to avoid school at all costs.”
From this perspective, triggered by the introduction, the documentary prompts Western children to reflect on two types of relationships: between luck and misfortune, and between school and knowledge. What they’re expected to take away from the film, or so it seems, is a heightened awareness of their own entitlements and mentalities, and to juxtapose these against the tribulations, obstacles and values of the protagonists.
This interview suggests that this is the frame Plisson had in mind when he made the movie. “In our countries, sometimes they don’t want to go to school and they don’t realize the opportunity of going to school”, he said. “Going to school is easy for them, they don’t struggle, so the relationship between school and education is not as strong”. After watching the movie with Plisson, some French children told him that “their parents take care of them too much and [that] they’d like to be more free.”
To be sure, it is important that middle class children think about the meaning of privilege and access to education. Yet there are so many other –richer- stories and themes captured in this film; Stories that defy the binaries between privilege and misfortune and touch on issues that reveal so much more than the contextual contours around school attitudes. A pre-occupation with ‘us versus them’ risks missing the scenes and dialogues in ‘On The Way to School’ that reveal much richer narratives. And these are precisely the narratives that challenge the static identities, hinging on difference and otherness, in which Western media too often locks children from the South.
For one, there is the story about kinship that Zahira, Samuel, Carlito and Jackson, just by going about their daily lives- are displaying in the most beautiful and moving of ways. We read it in the eyes of Jackson’s father when he grabs his children’s hands and tells them “may you make it to school unharmed” before they take off. The story is told by Carlito’s expression, when his father hands him a feather for protection, and by his sister, who –with some nagging and joking- convinces him to let her ride the horse, even though it is against their parents’ rules. It’s told by Zahira, who, after reading to her illiterate grandmother, can hardly contain her joy when her grandmother tells her to “become intelligent and do well for yourself”. And it is captured in the words of her father, when he assures her that“ her studies are the most important thing” and in the eyes of her grandfather, who is immensely proud of Zahira’s academic achievements.
And then there is the larger story about peers and sameness, that an open gaze – one that is freed from the insistence on difference, mentality, misfortune, victimhood, exceptionality or heroism- encourages Western children to read in ‘On The Way To School.’ One that helps them to look beyond Samuel’s disability, perseverance and dependency, and see him for the animated and continuously smiling story-teller that he is. A far-away peer who, yes, is confronted by many challenges, but is also deeply loved and cared for by his mother and cannot get enough of the jokes and presence of his squabbling brothers.
Of course, it’s important for Western middle class children to think about the value of education and raise questions about the roots of inequality and justice. But in the West, where so many children are socialized to think of their far away peers in static, sometimes pathologizing, images, ‘On The Way To School’ offers them a beautiful, dignified and deeply moving counterweight.