A teacher tries to overcome deep dramas and rewrite the story of a village, armed with a simple pencil.
The Pencil (Prostoy Karadash – Простой карандаш) is a Russian drama with didactic connotations, directed by Natalya Nazarova. The film skillfully combines thriller aesthetics with social analysis, consequently offering plenty of points for thought. Antonina (Nadezhda Gorelova) an artist from St. Petersburg moves to the Karelian Isthmus, within the Russian taiga ecoregion, to be close to her husband Sergey (Vladimir Mishukov), an artist, opposition leader, imprisoned for allegedly attacking a policeman. Time in the small provincial town flows in its own way, beyond the borders of history, in fact for some St. Petersburg is still Leningrad. In the town coexist traits of the world of the past, which meet with the contemporary world. Most of the local population works in prison or in the pencil factory. Sergey does not appreciate her sacrifice and asks her to go back. The protagonist gets a job as an art teacher in the local school and experiences firsthand all the unpleasantness of life in the province.
Antonina decides to teach focusing on a simple and versatile tool: a pencil. She believes that if people are taught the difference between good and evil, lies, and truth, through art: the human, the positive side of the pupils can emerge. Confident in her method and the value and importance of art in the formation of alternative thought, Antonia keeps her head high in her work, until she stumbles upon reality: Misha, a 12-year-old local, who mistreats and robs without finding any type of resistance by adults. Her colleagues have long since given up on helping pupils. Situations of school bullying are not curbed as teachers and parents seem to be afraid of Misha’s older brother, who heads the main gang in the area and is in prison. To support the oppressed students in her class. Antonina decides to embark on a solitary struggle against the situation, but soon the violence takes over. Antonina opposes motivated also by the good results obtained with Dima, one of her most exceptional students, who show signs of great talent. The protagonist decides to get him out from that depressing small rural town hit by gang violence and indifference. But the release from prison of Misha’s brother changes everything.
A pencil, a weapon that can fill the void, is a tool for expressing feelings and thoughts, capable of underlining and distinguishing as individuals.
The film, starting from the classic story of a teacher in a degraded suburban school, where social discomfort is perceived in school life also through acts of prevarication, and insubordination towards the teaching authorities, is portrayed and differentiated by a simple and clean narrative. The film addresses the issue of social marginalization at geographical borders. Directed on multiple narrative levels sheds light on the regime, with the introduction of her artist husband Sergey imprisoned for excessive political activity. Reflects on the way the system works, particularly in remote areas where the law doesn’t properly fulfill its fulfillment. On impunity in marginal environments in the province that ends up causing a lack of hope in the inhabitants, generating cowardice. People are unable and unwilling to react. Even the school, in the Russian hinterland, is under scrutiny. The school corridors and classrooms are old and unkempt, underlining the misery of life and the indifference of the teaching staff, which despite being formed by the majority of women, sees them only very observant of the subject of their competence. The vulnerable points and problems of all are highlighted on the screen, painting a harsh and sad reality where bullying, loneliness, and the culture of machismo prevail.
The director emphasizes that it’s the local atmosphere and way of dealing with life that damages hidden talents. Natalia Nazarova points out how kids instantly absorb everything that happens around them and how adults manage to forget about it every day, setting a bad and cowardly example.
Antonia is an idealistic artist, her hopes are filled with the pain of those who are part of a generation that has always sought freedom at all costs and that has faith in truth and justice. The first word of the protagonist isn’t pronounced until she arrives at the house where she rents a room, this circumstance underlines the loneliness of her journey. Antonia is pure and bold, she is unable to lie, since the beginning during the interviews for the teacher’s position in the school, after having motivated her transfer for climatic reasons, she suddenly confesses that her husband, is unjustly detained in the village. She looks small, she comes in simple clothes, she has a long skirt and a coat, she has a lot of enthusiasm, but she is strong determined, proud, and courageous.
Antonina has a unique way of seeing the best present in all individuals, although this may be a long journey, and although trying to extrapolate this positive side may not help her. The protagonist, with her devotion, acts as a metaphor for hope, change can happen, but not without sacrifices, in fact, she immediately encounters opposition in every step and from different sources. She fights for human talent trying to bring about the big change. While everyone pretends that nothing is happening, she confidently goes straight to her goal, not stopping in the face of difficulties, challenging them alone. Antonia speaks aloud stands balanced like a pencil and tries not to get broken. The teacher stubbornly fights for human talent by showing the beauty of the simplest things and the basics of drawing, but also helping youngth to truly see a person and take care of him/her. Despite being in a position of discomfort and the total indifference of the rest of the school staff, she seeks a dialogue with the problematic boy, to understand him and establish a relationship with him. The actress Nadezhda Gorelova who plays Antonia, emphasizes her heroic nature, but also her vulnerable traits.
Teachers nowadays don’t always correspond to the figure of the intellectual and aren’t ethical model. Her colleagues are disenchanted and don’t believe or even delude themselves that culture can change people. The cruelty of circumstances and fatigue has given way to cynicism, diminishing the enthusiasm of teachers leading them to the condition of individuals who continue their profession, trying to survive and benefit from an economic return, without risking losing that security for a great deal, or to pursue any kind of mission. The fire that burns inside Antonia, in their soul has been extinguished, but they aren’t immune to its charm. Antonia makes a very good impression on them. They watch her from a distance with caution so as not to get burned, but that heat and those flames are considered dangerous, this is why they leave her alone in her mission. Antonia believes in a greater natural order, and to continue carrying it forward she isn’t satisfied with a miserable reward, she doesn’t give up, she believes in generosity and life. After all, the benefits, even if few, are uniquely the result of those who are committed and have previously fought without being discouraged. She is part of a relay race, where the baton is passed to continue generating life, creating active individuals. She isn’t a mother, but she is the mother of her students with her example, her commitment, her dedication, her care, and her concern.
Be trained by a good teacher is very important, it can change someone’s life, create a personality, and open new doors. Even the seemingly incorrigible and difficult teenager begins to show signs of change. When Misha warns Antonia of the imminent arrival of his brother released from prison and tries to stop his brother as much as possible, he shows that, unlike the adults, he felt comfort from that warmth transmitted to him. The teacher manages to bring something bright in despair: it becomes the ray of inner light and strength, a great spirit of resistance in the drama. The world of the small town begins to change even if not everyone realizes it.
Those who choose the profession of a teacher by vocation teaches to see the beautiful and the real, barely perceptible. That person can be somebody who can change the conscience of many and make it clear when it becomes necessary to restore justice. This one can offer students a drop of light, hope, motivation, protection, and warmth. Life is not always fair, but it can be beautiful and even in the most remote woods, there are those who can make a difference thanks to a pencil, a simple but powerful tool. The soul of the young people tends towards beauty and Antonia, in the village, which is very different and far from the metropolitan lifestyle, meets an extremely talented boy, Dima. Without her, Dima would never have been able to discover his own talents. The boy’s drawings are never shown, in such a way as to leave the viewer’s imagination the opportunity to see what they consider talented.
The Pencil Factory is an allegory of the children and adults of the rural village: the bully easily breaks them. But although the pencil is fragile, the simple pencil also becomes a weapon in the fight against injustice, humiliation, and lawlessness. A drawing pencil is an ancient tool, which we still use and is almost unchanged. Even if the pencils seem, all the same, each in the right hands has the potential to create infinite drawings and open doors to wonderful and better worlds. In the same way, every individual, thanks to study and art, puts ownself in a position to get out of mediocrity. The film opens and closes with the frames of the factory for the production of slightly changed pencils as if to indicate a continuous and ineluctable cycle of life, where Antonia has brought the difference. The film has a distinct sense of realism, which at times almost seems like a documentary. The film also fits into a neorealist context, due to the participation in the cast of characters residing in the Karelian isthmus. The young leading actors Kirill Veselov and Alexander Kolchevsky are not professionals.
The story is told also from a purely visual aesthetic point of view. The city is full of de-saturated colors while nature has green tones, deep reds, and intense yellows, the colors of autumn duplicating the contrast between the inhabitants of the suburbs, and the territory in which people live. The inhabitants have stopped noticing the poetic beauty of the Russian region because they have become too used to the rigidity of the buildings. They don’t notice what surrounds them. They are no longer able to see the incredible marvel of their isolated area in nature. Their eyes can see only bad roads, squalor, dilapidated houses. They consider nature only a depressing wild and uncultivated ground.
The film was shot in the city of Segezha with its unique and breathtaking landscapes. The photography curated by Andrei Naydenov creates a metaphysical film in which much is modeled and expressed at the level of change of light and shadow. The landscapes are illuminated by the gold of the falling leaves, by the patterns created by the branching of the trees, and by the perspective of the woods in the distance visible from the road. The protagonists intertwine their stories within a landscape art painting, in which the ordinariness of autumnal nature is extraordinarily dreamlike and the surrounding reality can be seen in different ways. All the landscapes where the story takes place are places of inspiration for a painter or photographer, they are like canvases or postcards.
The protagonist seeks consolation by admiring black and white postcards of St. Petersburg architecture in the dark, in a room without electricity, with the help of the light of a cell phone. In fact, in the interiors of the houses, we almost see black holes, a void in the way of living and accepting life. The furnishings are minimalist, sometimes even in tatters, emphasizing again the contrast between what is created by humans and nature. This constant dichotomy, apparently oppressive, insinuates a message of hope in a possible change if that inside comes into contact with the beauty of the outside. Just like Antonia’s drawing lessons outdoors, which opens the potential window to another way of seeing things, another kind of life. Each image of the film is extremely thought out and elaborated also from the profoundly artistic point of view.
Ciao! My name is Dominique. I’m Italian and I’m proud to be a mix. My father was an Italian chemical engineer and high school teacher, with Greek and Polish heritage. My mother is Haitian, she was high school language teacher, with Dominican, Spanish, French, Portuguese, African and Native American heritage. Being a mix makes me appreciate to want to understand different cultures and lifestyles. I grew up in Italy, lived few years in Haiti, travel around main European capitals, lived seven years in China, six in Spain and UK. Traveling makes me feel that we can learn something from every situation in every part of the world.