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March 22, 2016

“A short course of nothing” review of “Las Maestras de la República”

I hate to start a review with a spoiler, but knowing your history is always a spoiler.  And, if you don’t know your history, historical films often lack interest.

Spain was backward during Franco’s dictatorship, just as fundamentalists in the middle east are making their own countries backward.  Much of Europe only truly emerged from the dark ages in the past 200 years, some parts have yet to emerge.

This documentary “Las Maestras de la Republica” is a story about education in a time between extremes, not only Franco’s extreme, but the extreme of the other guys.  The Second Spanish Republic was not a bed of roses, and the documentary skims over most of the problems of that regime.  Instead, it focuses on the new found equality of Spanish women through education, especially the role of teaching.

It doesn’t skim over the problems of discovering the reality of the Republic after censorship however.  As the documentarian explains, a lot of material was destroyed by the Falangists.  There are mentions of the objectionable lifestyles, lifestyles that Franco was able to use against Republican teachers.  The machismo of Republican soldiers, and the lack of true equality in some Republican minds is also mentioned.  The excesses of Republican soldiers is not mentioned probably because there weren’t a lot of teachers on the battlefront.

This movie is about those teachers, a time when equality of opportunity led to an increase in the quality of teaching.  The central argument of the movie, if there is one, is that giving women the opportunity, and the expectation, to study, increases the quality of life for everyone.  Educated teachers, the documentary indirectly says, are the best teachers.

The Second Republic of Spain did not destroy traditional gender roles.  Female education included learning how to become better mothers, how to sew, how to have better hygiene in the home.  Motherhood “was a choice” according to one of the interviewed experts, but it seems the focus of teaching of women was not in how to leave traditional roles, but how to perform those traditional roles more effectively.

However, before the Second Republic, there was apparently a “wooden partition that separated boys from the girls in the classroom” and even the playground was segregated.  As far as I can tell, co-education in primary schools existed in the United States since the pilgrims landed.  To hear that Spain was so backward, that boys and girls were separate until the 20th century, came as the biggest shock to me when watching this documentary.  But, of course, for context, you can watch Malala and see how in Pakistan girls weren’t expected to go to school at all.

As a filmmaker, one of the biggest takeaways from “Las Maestras de La Republica” was the style.  I have created one experimental documentary, which was completely different.  “The United States and Ukraine” dealt only with archive footage and newspapers, “Las Maestras de la República” had voice over and re-enactment, as well as interviews.

Las Maestras, was stylistically interesting, and would probably be interesting for anyone in education.  As I’m interested in film education, I thought I saw a parallel.

“A short course on nothing” is what Franco later required of teachers.  Instead of being properly educated, as they had been during the Second Republic, Franco’s teachers where chosen because of their political ties.  The implication is that rather than educating children, they indoctrinated them.  And, we can see from the history of the Spanish economy since Franco came to power, that perhaps that didn’t work out so well.

The (perhaps accidental) moral of this documentary is that teachers should be properly trained, that teaching is not just some unskilled job that anyone can do.  It also suggests that giving teachers an opportunity for advancement, an equal opportunity to become a principal of a school, and of course equality in their own education, might motivate them better.

The interviews, or those that were filmmed specifically for this documentary, make up the bulk of the dialogue; so its point of view is that of contemporary academics and a couple of eye witness testimonies rather than old footage.  The lack of footage (due to destruction by censors) dictated this choice.  But, there is also a voice over, an actress reading a letter written by a teacher from the time.

Although no recording of this teacher’s voice exists, indeed I don’t think we even saw a photograph of this teacher, she is the subject of the documentary in a way.  An actress walks around “re-enacting” her as another provided her “voice” in the background.  As this letter forms the backbone of the documentary, it creates a kind of unity in which all the interviews invisibly hang off.  This structure, from an old letter, guides the documentary to a degree.  However, it also follows chronology, and time is the main focus of this film.

Two interviews of eye witnesses, neither of them female teachers, help to bring life to the academic opinions.  One was a man who played piano for the women (as a boy), the other was a little girl at the time (and her mother was one of the teachers.)  These children are old now, but their perspectives as eye witnesses bring us back to the time when they were young.

Hearing the old lady’s memories as a little girl is really what makes the documentary worth watching.  She speaks of repressed emotions, of fear, of knowing her mother was killed and then seeing her aunt taken away.  Her powerful testimony of decades of silence is confusing in parts, as not all the interviews seem to agree on the facts.

It seems that there’s an afterwards too.  When you think you’re watching the credits, it’s not over, but I guess it no longer pretends to be a dispassionate view of history after that.  After the original view of the teachers, their photos and names, which we would conclude are closing credits, it’s not time to leave the theatre yet.  We hear the interviewees speak more warmly than before of the teachers, a kind of unreserved praise before the long credit role.

The only real reason I continued watching is that there was an indicator telling me there were seven minutes left of the film, and knowing that this was a low budget production, I doubted that it could be seven minutes of participants.  However, had I seen it online rather than in the cinema, I’d probably have missed it.

Overall, an interesting look at the history of Spain, and an interesting perspective on education.  The filmmakers did a great job, considering their limited budget and lack of available footage.  Recommended to anyone who wishes to know more about that difficult time in Spanish history, or anyone who is interested in education in general.