The Daily Life of an Illegal School

How much of our personality is determined by our roots and how easy can we adept to new circumstances? Does the country we live in, the generation we’re part of, or the language we speak change us?

The Daily Life of an Illegal School with The Story Junction

Jacklyn Cornelisse (1992) is a Dutch visual artist who explores how human identity is being influenced by the social frameworks we live in. After completing her BA Photography at AKV | St. Joost (Breda, the Netherlands) in 2014, she recently graduated at the MA Photography also at the art academy of Breda.

Currently Jacklyn is working on a new project in which she researches group dynamics.

TSJ’s Guest-editor Siddhartha speaks with Jacklyn Cornelisse in her first open interview to an Indian news cum media portal on education system, culture & upcoming plans.

Given the fact that the school is illegal, how did you manage to get in touch with them?

Inspiration can come from weird places… During my masters we had the opportunity to work abroad for a period of time. I didn’t know anything about Belarus when we decided to go there, so during a rather desperate Google-session, I found an old episode of a Dutch travelling-program which featured a very short part about this weird school which only spoke Belarusian and were arrested at some point. They didn’t really made clear what had happened but I was instantly fascinated. I contacted the production company and got an old phone number from their contact in Belarus. About 30 phone calls later I got in touch with Uladzimir, the headmaster. He instantly invited me to come to Minsk. This was the start of my adventure.

Why are you opposing the Russian influenced education system?

Opposing the Belarusian educational system isn’t the main goal of the documentary. My biggest motivation to make the movie has always been the students. They are an exceptional bunch of youngsters who already knew at a very young age that there was something wrong, not just with their education, but also the way their country is being governed. Because of this they make the very deliberate decision not to go to an official state school, but an illegal alternative. This decision to turn away from the beaten path, to choose for an alternative which can get you into trouble, or which can force you to lie to your surroundings, isn’t to be taken lightly.

My documentary isn’t a propaganda film for the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum. The viewer might notice that I have a huge respect for the cause of the lyceum and that I applaud their rebellion. However, I do leave room for them to think. All I want to do, is make people aware of certain issues. Of course I personally think there are many flaws in the official Belarusian educational system. It is, as your question shows, still mainly based on values and ideas which date back to the Soviet times. Bits and pieces of this old propaganda are still being used to teach their children about history, politics and the national ideology. This is consider to be very backwards.

Could you elaborate what are objection points in the Russian influenced national educational system?

The main flaws lie within the humanities-department. Take for example WWII: in the Belarusian educational system there’s a clear distinction between WWII and their “Great Patriotic War”. They almost exclusively focus on the latter, which they consider to start in 1941, while conveniently forgetting WWII started in 1939. This allows them to casually exclude the years in which Stalin still collaborated with Hitler and the occupation of the Baltic States and Poland. Other examples can be found in for example literature in which liberal Belarusian writers were banned and excluded from the curriculum.

In other words: the official curriculum of Belarus is still full of propaganda. The lyceum refused to teach their children this ‘selective truth’ and wanted a different, democratic and Belarusian approach. Sadly it’s forbidden to teach outside of the approved curriculum. Anyone who does is considered to be an activist, is forced to go underground and faces jail time.

How Belarusian approach is different from that of Russian and why is the new alternative education system being considered as superior method in terms of nurturing creativity and intellectuality?

What’s important to know is that the approach of the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum hasn’t been implemented on other schools. At the moment, as far as I know, they are the only school which completely provides education in the Belarusian language.

This is very important to them. Although the country officially has two languages: Belarusian and Russian, the latter completely dominates public life. Back in Soviet times Belarusian was considered to be something vulgar only peasants spoke. Over the years it changed into a language of protest. Protest against the authorities, while simultaneously showing the love for their motherland.

The lyceum actually started out as a Sunday school for people who wanted to learn the original language of their country again. Many Belarusians had lost touch with their original national identity and the lyceum focused on exactly that.

Over the years the lyceum has evolved into much more than just a place to learn Belarusian. They teach the students in a very democratic way and involve them in many affairs. For example the students have to clean the school building daily. They are also in charge of ringing the bell after every lesson. The lyceum has a very special vibe to it. Even though their teaching methods are generally quite classic, they have a very child-centered approach which is the biggest difference between them and mainstream schools. Students feel safe. They are offered facts from different sources, which they learn to analyze and are encouraged to form their own opinion. The lyceum doesn’t impose political opinions on them. They merely attempt to provide an objective truth and help the students to find their own point of view in the grand scheme of things.

Also, when they see someone who’s very good at for example playing the guitar, they encourage them to pursue that. Continuously they try to motivate and inspire the students that they can be whoever they want to be. Most of them are very creative and during every break you can hear guitar solos or singing throughout the building.

The alternative system caters to school education only. Is not it? If so, then those who pursue the alternative and Belarusian approach, how do they pursue higher education because, I believe the alternative system is neither approved nor affiliated and recognised?

It’s a bit premature to talk about ‘an alternative system’ since right now there’s only school, to my knowledge, who works like this. Most students who want to continue studying choose for universities abroad. The class I filmed for example has spread all over the globe and are for example currently studying in Singapore, Holland and Norway. This is mostly because Belarusian universities aren’t considered to be very good and are known to have unmotivated teachers and are rather old-fashioned. This, of course, does not apply to all universities. But, since the students from the lyceum have already dropped out of the official education system, sometimes it’s easier to study abroad without getting difficult questions where they were previously educated.

Could you give us some figure about the number of kids or students pursuing school education? What percentage is with the alternative system?

Due to the small building where the lyceum is currently located, they are only able to accommodate 40 to 50 students. Of course it’s their dream to open schools like this in other cities and provide this kind of education for more children. Sadly due to the current political climate and their illegal status, it’s impossible to branch out. I honestly believe not much will change as long as Lukashenko remains president.

What we believe, dictatorship method is the top to bottom approach which is given to accept. This, in fact, sows the seed of revolution. How do locals revolt protesting such top to bottom approach and restricted education system?

It’s very smart of a dictatorship to control education. When you control what’s being taught to the new generation, you practically control the future. This is obviously what’s being done in Belarus as well. What I’ve noticed while being there is that locals try to organize their own initiatives. Every week for example there are language lessons in the centre of Minsk where you can learn Belarusian in a small bookstore. They organize a music festival with only Belarusian speaking bands, give away small bracelets with the original Belarusian flag in the subway or designing hip shirts and bags just to make the original Belarusian culture more modern. Just about anything to get the new generation enthusiastic for their national identity.

What is the motto of your documentary that you’ve produced & directed as well?

That’s always a difficult question… Freedom is a very important aspect of the story. I try to grasp the contradiction which lies within. On the one hand one might argue that the students who choose for the lyceum are freeing their minds and crawl out from under interference by the authorities. They are being educated in a democratic and free way and are being motivated to do great things. Simultaneously they still live within the boundaries of the autocratic state of Belarus and are suppressed in different ways.

Their story made me aware of the privileged life that I live. The freedom they fight for is something I’ve taken for granted for a long time. I’ve never really felt activistic about certain themes or topics, but the people I met in Minsk have such a fire in them. Such a strong believe. And can’t do anything else but to have a huge respect for everything they do.

So what I hope the movie can achieve is to create awareness. Make people realize that there are still so many people who are not as fortunate as they are. At the same time this story can give hope to others who are suppressed in whatever form. The lyceum still exists despite all difficulties they had to face. They are still able to do what they set out to do. They are still here, fighting for their rights. And that’s most important.

In which countries & film festivals, you’ve submitted the documentary for screening?

I’m blessed with a topic which links too many larger themes that are popular in film festivals. I mainly send it to Human Rights festivals but honestly, I just want this story out in the world. That’s the main reason why I started this project: because I believe people have to see that on the edge of Europe there’s a country where freedom of speech is still a privilege, not a right. The first festivals who selected Mova Nanova were Jordan and Uganda, which was quite a surprise. I figured European countries would have more interest in the story somehow. Then again, thanks to doing this interview I found out that India also has quite some problems with education which shows that this story can be an inspiration worldwide.

The only restriction I have is that I have to be careful with sending it to countries close to Belarus. Due to their illegal status their situation can change any moment and the last thing I want is to get them into trouble. So most submissions I do in consultation with the headmaster of the school.

I’d love to see my documentary being screened in all 5 continents. Antarctica will prove to be a challenge, I’m sure. But how cool would that be…

What further plans or campaigns would you like to make for “Mova Nanova” – the Belarusian language?

I’m thinking about finding the funds to make a part two. I paid for this documentary myself and the budget of an art-student is rather limited… So next time, I’m gonna do it properly! I’d love to follow these kids during their years abroad, but especially when they move back to Belarus (which they all intend to do). What kind of development do they experience? Do they become Belarusian activists due to their alternative upbringing? Will they try to make a change? Will the seed the lyceum has planted, grow into something bigger?

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