Sundance 2023: Radical electrifies emotional impact of innovative teacher’s true story in an Mexican elementary school

In the middle of the magnificently acted Radical, which received its premiere at Sundance, one narrative scene encapsulates all of the formidable barriers to meaningful education in a sixth-grade classroom at José Urbina López Primary School in the border town of Matamoros in Mexico. Alarmed by reports of the sixth grade teacher’s radical approach in the classroom, a local government official visits the school, demanding to know why the students have not been prepared for the standardized test.

When he asks students about what they have learned, Lupa is the among the first to answer. She has become interested in philosophy, especially the works of John Stuart Mill. When she talks about how the right to abortion can be argued from both sides of the debate, another student pipes up about corruption and ethics. The irony of Lupa’s awareness is acute. She faces the prospect of being forced to drop out of school, when her mother tells her that she will be responsible for caring for yet another sibling who is about to be born. In that scene, the students demonstrate just how much smarter they are than a local government hack.

A still from Radical by Chris Zalla, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute

While the scene is a well-crafted example of director Christopher Zalla’s creative license, the film’s narrative arc is more than sufficiently faithful to the accurate epiphany of its real-life story. More than a dozen years ago, Sergio Juárez Correa came to the school in Matamoros and decided to take a radical pedagogical approach, which flaunted the entrenched centrally controlled culture of Mexico education.

Matamoros was (and still is) an emblem of some of the gravest problems in Mexico’s education system. While the gap in gender equality has been narrowed, it remains a huge problem. Girls such as Lupa face the risk of not finishing their schooling because of traditional domestic roles. Less than one out of five women continue their education after high school. More than four of out five married girls drop out. But, poverty also has aggravated problems of absenteeism, dropout rates and failure which set students back in moving from one grade to another.

Taking to heart Sergio’s message that the one common thing the students have with their peers anywhere is potential, Zalla’s film strikes precisely the hopeful inspirational tone, which has warmed Sundance audiences. 

Zalla’s film is a love letter to teachers who have the instinctive magic to show students such as Paloma Noyola Bueno, whose real-life experiences are woven seamlessly into Radical’s narrative fabric, that their dreams can become reality. After news emerged about how his students had within one year improved their scores to the highest score percentiles in Mexico, Juárez Correa was interviewed by media outlets around the world, including BBC Munro. One of the most prominent pieces was Joshua Davis’ cover story in a 2013 issue of Wired magazine which chronicled the teacher’s radical approach (spawned by an internet video featuring a UK educational technology professor who found that when computers were given to students in India they were able to teach themselves all sorts of things without guidance). Davis, who is a producer of Radical, also, highlighted Paloma and how her effortless facility with science and math stunned her teacher — a story recreated in the film. Juárez Correa had introduced the class to the famed mathematicians Carl Friedrich Gauss and the story about calculating every integer between 1 and 100. When he challenged the students to see if they could come up with the correct answer, Paloma answered instantly. 

Eugenio Derbez appears in a still from Radical by Chris Zalla, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo
by Mateo Londono

Another story from the magazine feature that was adapted for the film was about a burro who was given up for being too old to save but who manages to climb out of the well where he fell in, thanks to the mounds of dirt that the owner had thrown into the well and burying the animal. Capping the story with its moral, the teacher tells the class, “We are like that burro. Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to rise out of the well we are in.” 

While there have been many well-known stories about innovative teachers who see their students not as diminished, unmotivated learners but as intellectually curious explorers with potential, Zalla’s film electrifies the anticipated emotional takeaway. The desperate conditions of Matamoros are not sanitized or treated euphemistically. The poverty and the presence of drug cartel crime do not need to be manipulated for dramatic effect, as the risks and impacts are plain spoken for children who should not be pushed into the strenuous obligations of adulthood before they have had a chance to realize their dreams. Davis’ original description of the school’s appearance and function is replicated in accurate detail in Radical: “A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—‘a place of punishment.’

Chris Zalla, director of Radical, an official selection of the Premiers program at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Erynne Dowe

Eugenio Derbez, one of Mexico’s most recognized actors, takes the lead role of teacher to heart, allowing the young actors who portray the students to shine, including Jennifer Trejo as Paloma, Mia Fernandas Solis as Lupa and Danilo Guardiola as Nico (who is at a crossroads as he has been recruited to join a local gang). Derbez played the role of a music instructor in CODA, the 2021 Sundance film that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. CODA will featured tomorrow (Jan. 26) at a special screening in Park City during the festival. Zalla’s directorial debut feature Padre Nuestro won the grand prize in 2007 at Sundance in the U.S. Dramatic competition.

For more information about festival screenings and tickets, see the Sundance website.

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