The New School
Life in Cuban boarding schools

by Valerie Landau

from Jump Cut, no. 20, 1979, pp. 14-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

For me, the most fruitful way to analyze THE NEW SCHOOL (LA NUEVA ESCUELA, 1973), Jorge Fraga's documentary about Cuban high schools in the countryside, is to compare the film to my own experience working, studying and living in one of these "New Schools" during the 1974-75 academic year.

This feature-length film opens with shots of the students saying goodbye to their families at the beginning of the school year. They convey a sense of adventure mixed with the sadness of separation, a feeling I remember well. Once on the school bus, however, squeezed between two friends on a seat, talking and singing, knowing we were on the way to work, study and participate in the formation of a strong Cuban society, many of the pangs of separation diminished.

The film cuts to an interview with a woman — presumably a teacher or administrator — who describes how the principles of work-study are implemented in the New Schools. The theory of work-study comes from Jose Martí, a prominent figure in Cuba's independence struggle against Spain in the late 19th century and the country's foremost poet. All secondary students participate in work-study. The students who attend day schools in the urban areas spend 45 days a year in the countryside doing agricultural labor. In the boarding schools in the countryside, students spend half of every day in class and the other half working in the fields. Jose Martí felt that by incorporating work into a student's experience, s/he becomes less alienated from and better prepared for her/his life as a worker and productive member of society. This is not the only reason behind the New Schools. By engaging in productive labor, the students are making a concrete contribution to the national economy, which provides them with a completely free education, including books, supplies and uniforms.

The film never drags. Upbeat cutting, an active camera and the dynamic use of color keep it lively. (This is in fact one of the first color films processed in Cuba. The rainbow motif used repeatedly in the credits and titles seems designed to celebrate this achievement.) Throughout the film, helicopter shots of the 53 secondary schools in the countryside show the beauty of the layouts and the landscapes while also ensuring that each one of the schools is visually represented.

Frequent voice-over interviews and narrations are accompanied by scenes of various school activities: cultural events, parades, assemblies, classroom sessions, agricultural labor, a visit from Fidel. This last sequence is a joy to watch. Fidel competes ostentatiously with male and female students at volleyball, basketball, baseball and pingpong, hamming it up as much as possible. The film then cuts from a shot of Fidel's face to a Cuban flag, to a statue of Jose Martí, to students marching in a May Day parade, to a ten-story poster of Che, and ends with a quote from Martí: "…in the afternoon the pen, but in the morning the hoe."

A predictable montage? Perhaps, but the film also employs more subtle techniques. In the classroom scenes, the camera most often focuses on an individual (student or teacher) and then pulls back to reveal the whole class. This technique visually emphasizes a major principle behind the New Schools and the New Cuban society as a whole: the group is composed of individuals and each individual is an important component of the group. By identifying with the individual for a moment and then drawing back to a more collective perspective, the viewer finds him or herself feeling comfortable and supported within the group and thus shares the feeling experienced by students of the New Schools.

After viewing THE NEW SCHOOL in the context of a college course in the U.S., several people came to me to ask, "Is that what it's really like?" Boarding schools are a difficult concept in a country like Cuba, where the family and the extended family have traditionally been the major agent of socialization and acculturation. In my school, called "Heroes of Varsovia," the majority of the students had never spent a night away from home before. Attending a school in the countryside five and a half days per week, living communally for the first time, and having a demanding schedule of study and physical labor are not always an easy adjustment.

At one point in the movie, a girl dressed in work clothes explains how she disliked working in the fields at first and how the other students' enthusiasm eventually changed her outlook. My own response was similar to hers. I enjoyed being outside in the country, looking at the palms and the intense sky. But even the beautiful surroundings and the escape from the rigid study schedule could not completely make up for the fact that the work was tedious and tiring. We usually picked weeds or gathered root crops. The sun was always blazing, and the insects tried to drink from your eyes.

The camera repeatedly focuses on students in close-up, working together in pairs, then pulls back to reveal a whole field filled with pairs of students at work. I often worked alongside one of my close friends. We had many long talks about our different cultures and societies, and I learned a lot during the hours I spent in the fields. I learned what kinds of fruits and vegetables grew, and how. I learned songs and jokes. I met campesinos who have worked the land every day of their lives with their leathery hands. I learned that modern technology (medicine, tractors, sprinklers) can be a great thing, and how to appreciate it without becoming dependent on it. I learned in a very concrete way why development is so important. By having to do physical labor myself, I gained insight into why it is so important that everyone work and contribute to society.

In one sequence, the camera follows a serious boy riding silently on the school bus while those around him are clapping and singing. He walks down the dirt road to his home where his family, grave-faced and dressed in their best clothes, wait to greet him in front of their thatched hut. The father expresses pride that his children are attending a school of such high quality. Smiling now, he states, "My children now have what I did not." The difference between the traditional peasant hut and the New Schools is more than apparent. One perceives the beauty of the Revolution — progress, not only of technology, but of human potential. Developing the underdeveloped. This theme is reinforced throughout the movie, but more important, it is experienced in every aspect of the Revolution.

While an administrator is explaining in voice-over the principles on which these schools are run, we see shots of students in science labs or filing through the halls, and a long shot of a boy and girl carrying the Cuban flag down the open-air corridor. Flag-raising was an important part of the morning formation. News and activities for the day were announced. One group of students gave a cultural presentation: a skit, a song, a group chorus of political slogans. We changed our school slogan: "Estudiar, estudiar mas, estudiar siempre. Lenin." (Study. Study more. Study always. Lenin) On Fridays we sang the national anthem.

In THE NEW SCHOOL, shots of the formations are accurate yet deceiving. There is a great difference between being in the middle of the formation and up on the stage looking down at it. In formation, one is standing in neat rows, disciplined and quiet. Though the whole school is congregated, you can only see the familiar faces of those near you. From the stage, the camera is alone and free to move; it can see everyone.

It was this dimension that was lacking in the film: what it feels like to live in a New School five and a half days a week. The film put little emphasis on the discipline of the daily routine, while in reality, collective and individual discipline are the foundations of these schools. Our schedule was strict. After waking at 5:45 a.m., washing and dressing, we lined up in single file and waited to eat breakfast. We then went to the morning formation, which usually lasted about 45 minutes, and then off to five classes. We stood in line for lunch, ate in silence, and changed into our work clothes. After returning from three hours in the fields, we had 45 minutes to shower and change back to our uniforms. (There were only six showers for the 64 people in each dorm.) After study period, we ate dinner. We had the rest of the evening (until ten o'clock) free to do what we wanted, with the exception of dorm inspection, which often took up to half an hour.

In the movie, an administrator explains the purpose of the two-hour study period every night. She states that it creates good study habits and eliminates "cramming" before tests. Since I often didn't understand the lecture fully, especially at the beginning of the year, study period was beneficial for me because it enabled me to study with others and receive extra help. Someone was always willing to explain things to me until I gained a complete understanding. The spirit of collectivity was very high. By helping others do well in the school and by doing well yourself, you were setting a standard for all students and all groups. In this form of competition — called "emulation" — there is no loser; instead, goals are set by those who work the hardest.

There was incredible self-discipline and responsibility within the student body. Unfortunately, I did not see this emphasized in the film. During study period, teachers made the rounds to answer questions. However, we took it upon ourselves to maintain relative silence and discipline within the classroom. (This is quite an amazing feat when compared to my experiences within the junior high and high schools in the U.S..) When a teacher was absent, one of the students would conduct the class. All the New Schools follow the same lesson plan, and the students don't want to miss a single lecture for fear of falling behind the national schedule.

One sequence in the film which I found particularly interesting was a criticism/self-criticism session in a 7th grade class. It gave me a chance to see the differences between this group's methods of criticism and those of my own 10th grade group. In the film there was a general light-heartedness, a trivial, almost tattletale nature to the comments. In my experience, these sessions, run and chaired by students, were treated with utmost seriousness. Long-term participation, attitudes in work, study and general behavior were the basis for the comments, and people often responded by changing their attitudes.

One of the most beautiful scenes in THE NEW SCHOOL involves the oral evaluation of a young teacher by her class. When she is invited back into the room after the session, she explains how she had originally planned to continue her studies in mathematics, "…but when the need for teachers came up, I couldn't refuse the Revolution." The interviewer asks if she would like to hear a recording of her students' evaluation of her. Their comments are so filled with affection and gratitude for her efforts that she is at a loss for words. The camera cuts to a close-up of her face, filled with joy, on the verge of tears.

In another sequence, the director of one of the schools reads a letter to the assembled students; it states that their school has won first place in the nationwide, school in the countryside emulation. All the students, so silent and orderly seconds before, begin to jump, yell and chant in a triumphant frenzy of solidarity. Such moments make all the hardships of daily life, all the material shortages (and there are many) and all the hard work seem worth it.

The experience of the New Schools is not only academically productive (as demonstrated by the considerably higher grades and faster progress among New School as compared to day school students); it also encourages the breakdown of traditional sexual, racial and class biases. There is no sexual division of labor within the New Schools; both female and male students perform the same tasks — mopping floors, serving food, hoeing, weeding. By interacting with different types of people, including the handicapped, on a day-to-day basis, residual prejudices and assumptions of inequality disappear.

It is apparent that THE NEW SCHOOL was made to expose the Cuban population to these schools and generate widespread enthusiasm for them. Though truthful and accurate, the film lacks a sense, of the intensity of the routine. The demanding nature of the academic curriculum (physics, math, biology, chemistry, history, English, Spanish, physical education, communist morality, vocational training); the rigor of the agricultural labor; and the strictness of the discipline. Nor does the film address itself to the many problems of the New Schools. The critical, self-reflexive attitude characteristic of so many Cuban films is absent from this one. Since its intent is to celebrate the remarkable fact of the schools' successful existence, a survey of accomplishments is perhaps more appropriate than a catalogue of any problem areas which remain. The film is aimed at the students and potential students of the New Schools and their families. In depicting the enthusiasm of the young Cubans involved in the New School project, it also generates it, and that enthusiasm is contagious.