I had the opportunity to talk with filmmaker Marvin Blunte while he was staying safe at his parents’ home in New York state a few weeks ago. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
The film is a fascinating look into a beautiful community of kids and educators—and inspiring! One of the interesting choices you made was to have no narrator and no explanations of what is happening. Viewers are just immersed in the day-to-day life of the school. Could you talk about why you made that decision?
I’ve always been a fan of observational style filmmaking. The work of a French director named Nicolas Philibert is one of my models. He made a film called To Be and to Have, about a little rural school in France in 2002. When I was trying to come up with how to approach Mother Aew’s school, I went through a variety of options, including having a host or narrator to explain the place.
But if you look at a lot of films about other cultures and countries coming from the West, they’re often skewed with the filmmaker’s opinions. I didn’t want that. I wanted to present exactly what the school is like, and when the teachers and students saw the film, they seemed to think it was successful in that. They were initially worried about what I was going to film, and I warned them that it was my right as an artist to tell the story as I saw fit. But in the end they were thrilled.
I understand you kind of stumbled upon the school while working on another project. What inspired you to go back multiple times to make the film?
At first I didn’t understand anything because almost no one spoke English. I didn’t understand what was happening or how the school worked. One of the kids kept following me as I was walking around taking photos on my first trip. I kept trying to shoo the kid away, and I indicated to one of the teachers who spoke a little English that I was sorry about this student following me and not being in class. She said, “He’s following you because he’s interested in what you’re doing. Is he bothering you?” I said he wasn’t, and then she told me this is part of the democratic school process. He was learning what he wanted to learn.
I left the next day to go to Cambodia to cover another story, but the school kept spinning in my head. The kids were in charge! They showed me around, served me my food, seemed to take full responsibility for me and, later, when I returned, for my crew. I went back for a short time to teach photography, so they could get to know me. I didn’t want to be a novelty—I wanted to become invisible while I filmed.