A Long Way to School (2020) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): Mothers fighting against prejudices

South Korean documentary film “A Long Way to School” looks into a long fight of a group of courageous mothers who simply wanted their children with disabilities to have a special school closer to them. While it is often infuriating to see how the situation was often hard and difficult for these strong-willed ladies in many aspects, it is also touching to see how they stuck together through the love for their children, and we come to reflect more on the urgent social issues presented in the documentary.

These mothers’ desperate story has been quite familiar to me and many other South Korean people thanks to an unforgettable TV news report on their latest struggle several years ago. In 2017, a closed elementary school located in the middle of their neighborhood area of Seoul was going to be reconstructed into a special school for the children with disabilities, and these mothers were certainly willing to support this plan, but they were soon opposed by many other people in their neighborhood, who strongly preferred to have an oriental medicine hospital building instead just because they believed that special school in question will ruin the reputation of their neighborhood in addition to affecting their real estate price. I still remember well watching how desperately and tearfully these mothers kneeled and pleaded in front of those local people vehemently and heartlessly opposing the plan for the special school, and that surely reminded me and many others of the deep prejudices against disabilities in the South Korean society.

At the beginning, the documentary shows us how much the mothers and their children with disabilities really needed to have that special school in question. Because there was no special school in their neighborhood area at that time, the mothers had no choice but to send their children to some other special school located far from their neighborhood, and it took more than one hour for their children to go to that special school. In addition, they also needed more time for preparing their children for going to that special school by bus, so they and their children had to wake up quite early in the morning, and that was another inconvenience for them and their children to say the least.

Sticking together via their association established in 2013, the mothers tried their best for making the society better for not only them but also their children, and the documentary often shows us their collective efforts toward those politicians and administrators in Seoul. As it seemed quite possible that the plan for that special school would be canceled, the mothers became determined to protect the plan as much as they could, and they also tried to communicate with many local people out there for understanding and persuasion, though many of those local people did not even try to listen or discuss with them at all.

While frankly showing us how common people can be hateful and spiteful just because of fear and selfishness, the documentary also provides some understanding on a number of social reasons behind that. Their neighborhood has been packed with poor people for many years as those city administrators let heaps of cheap apartment buildings established in the area, and building a special school for the children with disabilities felt like putting another social stigma onto their neighborhood. However, as sharply pointed out at one point in the documentary, they were guilty of stigmatizing that perished elementary school which was usually for the children from poor households, and it is no wonder that many local people who sent their children to that perished elementary school did not support their neighbors against the special school.

In case of those city administrators and politicians associated with this problematic circumstance surrounding the special school, they were not much of help to the mothers. A certain parliament member willingly went along with his potential voters, and we are more disgusted when the documentary later shows how hypocritical this scumbag really is. In case of the commissioner of the city education department, he initially looked like a reliable ally for the mothers, but then he let them down as making some questionable compromises just for building that special school as soon as possible without more troubles.

Despite lots of exasperation and frustration, the mothers still did not give up at all, and some of them give us a series of poignant moments as honestly telling their respective personal stories in front of the camera. Many of them still remember well how much they were despaired as trying to deal with the disabilities of their children at the beginning, but they eventually came to find each own way to accept and live with their children’s disabilities, and they are all constantly concerned about their children’s future. Yes, their children will be fine as long as they are with their children, but their children are bound to have to live on their own someday, and they simply hope that the world is good enough for their children even after they are gone.

As often emphasized throughout the documentary, the South Korean society still needs more changes for improving the civil rights and welfare of people with disabilities, but there have been a few significant changes during last several years, and the eventual construction and opening of that special school was one of them. Although the children of many mothers appearing in the documentary are already too old to go there, they are proud of their accomplishment nonetheless, and they are still willing to fight more for more changes in the future.

Overall, “A Long Way to School” is an earnest and powerful documentary, and director Kim Jung-in did a good job of presenting the human dimensions of its main subject. It will probably take many more years for the South Korean society to be free of prejudices against disabilities, but these exceptional mothers in the documentary and many other good people are not daunted at all while ready to keep going as usual, and I fully support them without any hesitation.

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