‘Radical’: A film to provoke thinking

I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.

—Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History.

Paloma Noyola Bueno this year (2023–24) became the first student from the city of Matamoros to graduate from college. Radical is the story of her achievement. Directed by Mexican director Christopher Zalla, it is a must-see for anyone in the teaching profession, and beyond. Jennifer Trejo plays Paloma, one of the students at the centre of the film, with Eugenio Derbez as teacher Sergio Juárez Correa.

Matamoros sits on the south-eastern bank of the Rio Grande, not far from the Texas border town of Brownsville where NASA runs hi-tech education programs and which is home to Elon Musk’s SpaceX launching pad at Boca Chica. It once provided the labour for now long-declined US-dependent manufacturing industries, and is home to one of Mexico’s oldest organised crime outfits, the Gulf Cartel. A town so violent that filming on location was not possible. A town so impoverished that if a computer or laptop enters a home it will be sold to put food on the table. Beyond primary school, girls look after babies and the home while some of the boys graduate into the literal dead end of organised crime. Sergio himself grew up in Matamoros beside a garbage tip, as did Paloma. In 2012, Paloma was recognised as a standout.

As a film, Radical is a straightforward narrative that tells an important story with global dimensions. Its focus is the school itself, and the pedagogical experiment Sergio embarks upon by applying the ideas of Sugata Mitra’s Minimally Invasive Education—an approach which places the inquiring student at the centre of learning. He believes in his students’ potential to educate themselves and to exceed the narrow limits defined by their schoolmasters. Those of us who work in education systems can only empathise with Sergio, who suffers an ‘existential crisis’ from having to teach the curriculum from the set page to the prescribed test. The effect is soul-destroying for both him and his students. Something has to change, but the enforcers of the status quo soon reveal themselves from within and without.

Sergio’s oppressed colleagues look forward to a promised bonus for improved standardised-test scores and accept that they are the ones being tested. Sergio’s principal does not understand why he wants to be in his school, but is happy to have another teacher, although he cautions him not to ‘kick the hornets’ nest’. However, to encourage his students to think, work with, and value what they already know, and collaborate to arrive at conclusions, is radical enough to provoke the sting of the district director, who stands Sergio down. Fortunately, Sergio’s principal, albeit reluctantly, has the will to walk the political tightrope and manages to keep him on. Nevertheless, we get glimpses of life beyond the relative safety of the school walls; police, guns and corpses are ever present, and family priorities of work and survival mean the luxury of secondary education is not affordable. Paloma’s father fears, not unreasonably, that Sergio is setting her up for unrealisable expectations which will leave her devastated.

That educating children within the confines of a state school should be, or needs to be, radical in its intention says everything about the maleficence of the corporate-led standardisation and testing that defines the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), as well as Gillard’s serial child abuse in NAPLAN. And while the Australian context is vastly different, the film makes the point that the systemic underfunding of public education and the impoverishment of communities combine to create formidable obstacles to pursuing any opportunities to make and lead a fulfilling life. Defenders of tax-guzzling non-government schools here must be prepared to defend their part in reinforcing the effects of inequality: for details, see SaveOurSchools.com.au.

About the author

Peter Curtis

Peter Curtis is a school teacher for 23 years, and passionate educator and inclusion advocate committed to redressing social and economic disadvantage. He has taught across a range of classroom and school environments, and integrates knowledge of the human lifespan, and play-based pedagogies into teaching and counselling.

More articles by Peter Curtis

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