The Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival, which has long championed human rights-based work, presented a compelling collection of films in its 26th edition that focused on issues of Roma inequality.
One of the most moving is Leaving to Remain, which follows three Roma characters who emigrated to the UK from central Europe and overcame a multitude of challenges to become an insightful tale of change and opportunity.
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“I think it’s really important,” says director Mira Erdevički of the document, which addresses the decades-old problem of Czech and Slovak public schools marginalizing Roma children and forcing them into special educational programs that offer minimal academics.
“If there is a system that separates Roma children just because they are Roma, they really don’t have a choice,” says Erdevički. “And then they get blamed because they’re poor — but poverty comes with less education.”
Leaving to Remain is the director’s third film to tackle the issues of the minority – Europe’s largest – and follows three Roma characters whose families emigrated to the UK years ago to allow them full integration into mainstream schools enable what each managed to build an impressive career.
“If you have half a million people migrating from the Czech Republic and Slovakia when you don’t have a war, that really tells you something about what’s in store for them.”
In addition, the Doctor’s subjects are also committed to helping others like themselves, says Erdevički.
When asked why they are migrating to Britain, the director says most Roma who have moved would say it is giving their children a chance at a good education.
“I think the film is about what it means to have an education – what is your perspective and how does it change your personal success. But also how you help your community.”
One of the film’s protagonists, Denisa, a busy mother who managed to complete her law degree, works in a legal aid organization and helps immigrants sort out their asylum and residence papers. As she grapples with mind-boggling bureaucracy and deadlines that threaten to strip people of legal status in the UK after Brexit, the clock ticks down and Denisa struggles to stay calm and focused.
Her balancing act – and quite a few arguments with her – is documented by her son Hynek with increasing confidence and creative camera work using a portable iPhone.
When COVID made it impossible for film crews to shoot film subjects directly, Erdevički said she got her hands on small 4K cameras and worked closely with them on a daily basis to give them technical feedback on how best to film their lives.
The coaching paid off, with powerful scenes of personal struggles captured by her protagonists filming spontaneous moments of lightness and fear from their lives.
“Leaving to Remain” grew out of the filmmakers’ curiosity about Roma children whose parents had emigrated to the UK to enable their children to thrive in a multicultural British society with access to inclusive education.
Their lives stand in stark contrast to that of Roma children in their home countries, stuck in a system that marginalizes them years after European human rights courts ruled that Czech and Slovak schools must end systematic segregation.
After extensive research, the “Leaving to Remain” filmmakers found their three protagonists in the English cities of Leicester and Peterborough.
Petr, who became a police officer, won an MBE for his work on community cohesion between Roma and non-Roma communities. He came to the UK with his family in the 1990s after he and his mother were victims of skinhead attacks, which Czech police turned a blind eye to.
After leaving the police force, Petr decides to devote his life to community work in his new home.
Denisa, the lawyer, was the only one in her family who received a general education in the Czech Republic, but then realized that she couldn’t find a job even with her high school diploma. After moving to Leicester and working as a cleaner, she trained as a qualified solicitor specializing in social welfare.
The family of Ondrej, who was Roma and sent to a special school in his native Slovakia, was motivated to move to Britain because of the incident. Her son then received his secondary education at Babington Academy in Leicester, where he thrived despite his initial lack of English. After completing his bachelor’s degree with distinction in psychology, he studied his master’s degree while supporting his family and starting his own.
But the film captures more than a stunning contrast of possibilities, says the director — it also shows that the courage and determination of its performers are just as important. “You need critical ambition and the need to make yourself heard,” says Erdevički.
Producers Lucie Wenigerová, Zuzana Mistríková and Martin Jůza structured the film as a British-Slovak-Czech co-production with the support of Czech and Slovak Public Broadcasting, Czech and Slovak Film Fund and Slovak Kult Minor Fund.
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