MIFF 2012: Is “Normal School” more than just an underachiever with potential?
Normal School (Escuela Normal)
Directed by Celina Murga
Written by Celina Murga, Juan Villegas
Any time a narrative film or documentary, or any art form for that matter, attempts to portray a well-defined social entity, whether it be a community or an institution contained within walls, there can be moments of giddying excitements as uncanny parallels begin to surface, acting as mirrors by which society as a concept and a reality, or aspects of both, are seen anew, as if through a pair of virgin eyes. And even if there is never a eureka moment or instance of epiphanic revelation, it is at least always interesting to see how certain constants always prevail, certain modes and patterns of order, even in the midst of apparent chaos.
Celina Murga’s Normal School is true fly-on-the-wall filmmaking; sometimes fly-on –the-back, fly-on-the-shoulder or fly-all-over-the-place. Set during the final trimester of the year in 5th School Parana, a bustling, chaotic Argentine high school housed in a sprawling building equal parts colonial grandeur and postcolonial disrepair, the documentary is careful not to interfere with the goings on as teachers and students alike struggle to make sense of their days. There are no interviews or voice-over narrations. There is no score. This is pure observational cinema, sitting in on heated classroom debates as much as it does on day-to-day upkeep and administration. Of course, considering that the final cut probably represents only a tiny percentage of the total footage shot, it would be naïve to assume that Murga and her crew are without agenda or that their eyes weren’t at least drawn to certain elements in preference of others.
After a very verite opening sequence, tracking a student in his late teens through the darkened early morning streets all the way to his scribbled-to-splinters desk, what follows is an endearingly unadorned introduction to the school’s charismatic but overly adaptable principal as she goes about her morning routine, if it can even be called that. Normal School quickly finds itself preoccupied with a selection of politically-minded senior students preparing for the upcoming student elections as they approach graduation. If this is not because Murga intends the documentary to be in some way an exploration of the Argentinian socio-political fabric as seen through the eyes of those slowly coming to understand its complexities, then it is at least because following these bright and impassioned teenagers lends a sense of direction and purpose to a film that is being compared by some to the hands-free documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, who himself made a film called High School. The emergent lead characters of Normal School, so to speak, are introduced in startlingly economical ways, often through interactions with teachers and peers which establish their views on life and Argentine society as much as it exhibits their outspoken testiness and youthful hubris.