Yelizaveta Smith and Georg Genoux’s School Number Three is a documentary with a deceptively simple storyline: it records stories told by teenagers who have lived through the crisis in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, which started almost four years ago in November 2013. Based on the documentary play by Natalia Vorozhbyt – one of Ukraine’s leading playwrights – the award-winning film (Berlinale 2017) reveals the teenagers’ love and family life and – as they wish to show them – their dreams.
Sometimes the teenagers don’t seem to have much in common: they’re of different ages and tell their stories in diverse settings – outdoors, in a gym hall, in corridors. What they share is their attendance at the same school in the town of Mykolaivka, destroyed in the conflict in 2014 and rebuilt by volunteers: as such, they’re all children of war. Yet this shared heritage is brought home in the film with considerable subtlety.
War is still a constant in their everyday lives. It’s part of the teens’ coming of age, the way they understand the world, how they relate to their family, friends and lovers. One boy tells how he, his mum and siblings had to leave their father behind when fleeing the war, and to set their beloved dog free. Once the town was secure again, the boy returned and, to his surprise, the dog emerged unharmed. The boy adds – shyly but with all the confidence of his words – that he now wants to spend as much time as possible with his family and dog, having tasted the threat of losing them. Another girl talks about her first love, an older boy who supported the Russian side while her friends were pro-Ukrainian. She’s still coming to terms with the fact that politics can destroy relationships, that he separated from her because she wanted to understand both sides, to remain neutral.
In stories like these, war becomes a constant backdrop that sneaks into everyone’s lives, affecting them in different ways and shaping futures. Hardly ever do the children talk about those events visible in the news – the bombs, the soldiers. They talk about seeing their parents in a new light in times of despair, about wanting to protect their new-born siblings, about falling in love with volunteers who helped to rebuild their old lives. There’s something haunting about this mixture of innocence and wisdom, set in everyday moments, yet clearly staged.
School Number 3 is not without its flaws: some of the scenes – like one showing a girl performing a kitschy pop song, seem to act as road-bumps, watering down the film’s message – ripe for trimming or even cutting altogether. Some viewers may feel too that the presentation is at times stagey and over-rehearsed, undermining the sense of pure documentary. Yet this strong formal element arguably holds the film together, and pays lip-service to the play it originated from. It also allows us to keep a distance from the teenagers’ tales, giving us space to piece them together, and to recall the war and its causes.
Seen through the eyes of these teenagers, who believe themselves so grown-up yet who are still so innocent, School Number Three brings home the fact that a conflict is never just ‘over’. They may now be attending school again, but the war’s left its indelible mark on them at a fatally susceptible age. Even if they don’t talk about it directly, and even if we viewers can question what’s ‘real’ and what’s staged about their performance in the film, we’re reminded that a crisis doesn’t vanish when the reporters leave. There’s a generation shaped by it, and giving them a voice is what makes School Number Three more than just a documentary based on a play: it’s an activist statement that empowers those affected by the crisis, putting them and their distinct worldview bracingly into the spotlight.
School Number 3 was presented by New East Cinema – a film series curated by The New Social: a cultural collective bringing contemporary cinema from eastern Europe and beyond to London. For more information on their forthcoming events, please click on the logo below.