An encounter with three Kenyan children running to school through the savannah on a scorching hot, blindingly sunny early morning was the improbable inspiration for a documentary film that was screened at United Nations Headquarters in New York.
Pascal Plisson, the Director of On the Way to School, a film about the arduous daily journeys taken by children in four different countries around the world, says he was struck by the perseverance and determination to study shown by the young Maasai boys as they bounded through grassland every day on a long and perilous journeys in pursuit of knowledge.
“I’ve been travelling around the world for a long time, seeing kids struggling to get to school in a lot of countries,” Mr. Plisson said in an interview with UN News Centre last Friday. “It was very important to do this movie because I could show very simply how kids are struggling to go to school and the motivation they have.”
The film was made with support of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the non-governmental organization, Aide et Action, both of which helped the filmmakers to gather stories from around the world for the movie.
The four stories feature children who have to fight just to make it into a schoolroom each day, pushed by the understanding that education is crucial to their future. Jackson, an 11 year-old Kenyan from the Sumburu tribe, who hopes to become a pilot, risks his life daily, running to a school 15 kilometres from his home with his 6 year-old sister, dodging armed gangs and elephants.
Carlito, a shepherd’s son in Argentina, rides a horse 18 kilometres through Patagonia every morning, following his ambition to become a vet, while Zahira is the first girl in her Berber family in Morocco to attend school. Despite having to travel 22 kilometres every day, walking through mountains and hitchhiking, she is at the top of her class and hopes to become a doctor.
Samuel, who is 13 and from India, has the same career goal, and is chasing it despite being unable to walk. He lives with his mother in a hut that has no running water or electricity and is the only member of his family who can read. His brothers pull and push him more than four kilometres to school every day in a wheelchair made of recycled bric-a-brac.
Released in 2013, On the Way to School received widespread critical acclaim and broke box office records for a documentary film in France and Italy. It won a César – a French Oscar award – for best documentary in 2014, and Mr. Plisson felt it was essential that the film be screened at the United Nations.
“If there was one place where we could show this movie, it’s the United Nations,” he said. “[The UN is] really involved in education programmes, so if [the film] can help, if it can open eyes a little bit about education, then for me that’s nice.”
After the film was screened to an audience including UN staff, journalists and a class of schoolchildren, Mr. Plisson was joined at the podium by Maher Nasser, the acting Under-Secretary-General for Public Information, to discuss the film. Mr. Nasser welcomed the light it shed on the travails faced by so many children around the world in their efforts to attend school.
“We sometimes take basic access to education for granted,” he said. “But after seeing the perseverance of these children, I am sure that we will all better appreciate the opportunities that most of us – and our children – enjoy.”
Education is a fundamental human right that is essential for the exercise of all other human rights, and the UN and UNESCO have laid down a number of internationally binding obligations to ensure children are granted their right without discrimination or exclusion.
The proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) include a standalone goal devoted to ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education for all, as well as several targets relating to gender balance, vocational training and secondary education.
Mr. Plisson said he has been impressed with the impact his film has had on policy-makers, particularly in countries featured in the film.
“When we show this movie in Kenya, for example – to Ministers – they realize that they have a lot of work to do for a kid like Jackson to access school, not to have to run and risk his life every morning and every night,” he says. “So they will build boarding schools.”
The film is due for release in the United States on 6 February at the Quad cinemas in New York, and Mr. Plisson expects the run to expand the impact of the film. He also told the audience at the UN that a television series, spun-off from the many incredible stories that they researched over the course of making the film, will be released in France, featuring 10 other stories of the lengths children go to in order to ensure their education.
The event at UN Headquarters was organized by UNESCO, the Permanent Mission of France, the French UN Staff Society of New York (AFIN) and Distrib Films US.