Making a Moscow connection

Russian film school staff studies cultural preservation

S.J. Wilson/Observer
Brandon Montour and Murphy Luther work with composted soil, Justin Willie explains the process to Olga Kerzina.

S.J. Wilson/Observer Brandon Montour and Murphy Luther work with composted soil, Justin Willie explains the process to Olga Kerzina.

FLAGSTAFF -- Alla Stepanova and Olga Kerzina, representing the Moscow International Film School (MIFS), preceded heavy snow on March 10 to participate in a typical day at the STAR School.

The school, a charter school that includes native science, history and culture in its curriculum, is located 30 miles northeast of Flagstaff near Leupp.

According to Stepanova, who serves as art director at MIFS, the visit was just one of many to alternative schools over the past five years.

"We started the school after the crash of the Soviet Union," Stepanova said. "We began traveling around the world to see how other countries conducted their educational efforts.

It's sad that in the 51 countries we visited it was all the same.

"It's only been in the last five years that we've met people involved in traditional (cultural) curriculum," Stepanova said.

Kerzina shares Stepanova's dream of having a school that children would love to go to.

"After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a short time of freedom," Kerzina said. "We got a chance to do it."

Kerzina, the principal of MIFS, explained that had Stepanova and her colleagues not acted when they had, opening such a school would have been difficult.

Mark Sorensen, the director and founder of the STAR School, told Stepanova and Kerzina that the philosophy represented at his school is not for everyone--and that he depends on his small staff to take on duties that are not necessarily in the job description.

"It is part of the difficulties of a small school, and it can be stressful. People have to pitch in and help out," Sorensen said.

"In order to live idealistically within a school, you have to take care of what the government wants you to do," Sorensen said. "The students must do well academically. If you don't have that, it's hard to do the idealistic."

Stepanova agreed--but added that MIFS has supporters all over the world--and that the students work hard to protect the school as well.

"It was funny--we had Japanese visitors to the school, and these individuals made an interview with [Moscow] officials. This made them [the Officials] nervous," Stepanova said.

Like Sorensen, Stepanova recognized the dedication of her teachers, saying that originally teachers at MIFS were offered $20 a week for teaching.

Again, the students were enlisted to help find funding to keep the school open.

"It was part of their education," Stepanova said.

Today, MIFS has 100 students between the ages of 13 and 18. For the first part of the school day, students are involved in traditional curriculum. In the afternoon, the students engage in projects in cinematography, theater, television and mass media.

Social projects play a significant part of the curriculum. The film "Roll Call" is one such project, where so-called juvenile delinquents in specialized institutions were included in the creation of an imaginary dialogue with ex-political prisoners of the Solovki Gulag. The topic was how one can keep a sense of freedom and human dignity while in prison.

Another project, called "Mysterious Islands," focused on the idea of islands of genuine culture as opposed to continents of "plastic mass culture."

Study and visits to countries such as Japan, Alta, Thailand, as well as "islands" of culture within countries such as their own Russia, led students to a sad conclusion that such places are in danger of extinction, spiritually and culturally. Further, students understood that their task would be to protect and prolong the existence of these islands--quite an undertaking.

As the day progressed at STAR School, Kerzina commented on how well the students were conducting themselves.

"We've been teaching non-violent communication, and that has helped," said Steve Babcock, a special education and music teacher. "Some have bought into it, while others are more hard core. It's about buying into respect and responsibility."

Robb Redsteer, who has a son in college, is a recent addition to the STAR School board. He said that he and others of his generation work to challenge Navajo youth to give back to their people and their nation.

"We were honored with scholarships from the Navajo Nation," Redsteer said. "We challenged each other to give back. Now, the economic situation of the Nation has changed and the government no longer has the funding to give scholarships to everyone. It is more competitive now--but we are telling younger people, 'what will you do to give back?' We're imposing some guilt on them," Redsteer added with a laugh.

Justin Willie, a Navajo farmer and permaculturist, guided students through the preparation of amaranth--a form of grain--as well as the preparation of wool for dying. Later Willie led the pair on a tour of the campus where he has headed gardening and landscaping efforts using the principles of permaculture.

According to the website,, in simple terms, permaculture, or permanent (agri)culture, means working with natural forces -- wind, sun and water -- to provide food, shelter, water and other needs with minimum labor and without depleting the land. Permaculture is a holistic approach based on traditional agricultural practices.

Holding a double handful of fertile soil--a rare feature in the volcanic landscape of the STAR School--Willie explained the composting process that created it.

"This is about making soil where the soil is poor," Willie said.

Willie comes to the STAR School in partnership with Northern Arizona University.

The pair watched as several young men worked in a small greenhouse in need of a new cover, and commented on the snow.

"A gift to you, from Russia," Stepanova laughed.

Elaine Riggs, Navajo language and history teacher, is also a school parent. Riggs spent several weeks with students preparing power point presentations on Navajo astronomy. Students Nicolas Mitchell and Afton Solomon shared their presentations on the Big Dipper and other constellations that outlined not only the Navajo but the western teachings in both Navajo and English.

"We have been working to integrate Navajo language and modern technology," Riggs explained.

Several members of the Navajo Elder Help Project's student leadership team presented a summary of their work. Bariah Howell, the team's president, and Monique Reveles, the vice president, each displayed a story board while explaining the work that they have been heading.

Howell, the leader of the Elder Food Drive project, assisted by co-pilot Afton Solomon in describing the food drive efforts of her group over the Christmas holiday. The group is currently involved in another food drive effort.

Reveles was assisted by her co-pilot Lauren Claw in describing her Elder Service project. Reveles has headed several visits to the Infinia nursing home in Flagstaff where students helped prepare and serve meals to the entire resident population. The students have also helped residents make Valentine cards, delivered gifts and displayed the Navajo astronomy projects shared with the Moscow visitors.

After the presentation, which clearly moved both women, Stepanova thanked the students for their work, while Kerzina explained that such a program would be very welcome in Russia.

"Many people are in need of food," Kerzina said. "There are many elderly who would appreciate some help."

"While you were talking," Stepanova said, "I think God saw that. You are angels."

The Navajo Elder Help Project is funded by the Arizona Department of Education's Learn and Serve program.

Babcock took his turn in sharing details of the music program--which includes electronic music composition taught by Devon Smith--and the historical play, "Tolchaco," that he wrote with then teacher Rachel Tso and their drama students. "Tolachaco," which was performed both at the school and the Museum of Northern Arizona the year before depicts tribal and missionary efforts to resolve violence between Navajos and cowboys.

After a day filled with interactive sharing, the Moscow visitors expressed their thanks for all that had been shared with them.

We are grateful to you, Stepanova told STAR staff. "You are doing a lot to save the diversity of the world--keeping it as the Creator put it."


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