Synopsis of Freedom Writers
Freedom Writers is an American film directed by Richard LaGravenese and is based on the true story of California high school teacher, Erin Gruwell and her students at Woodrow Wilson Classical High School in Long Beach, CA. The main events depicted take place between 1993–1996, beginning with scenes from the 1992 LA Riots (aka Rodney King Riots).
Erin Gruwell, a new, excited school teacher who leaves the safety of her hometown, Newport Beach, to teach at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, a formerly high achieving school which has recently put an integration plan in place. Her enthusiasm is rapidly challenged when she realizes that her class are all “at-risk” high school students, (aka ” the unteachables”) instead of well-behaved, overachievers. In fact, the high school students form racial cliques in the classroom, gang fights break out, and eventually most of the high school students stop attending class. Gruwell also meets opposition from her department head, Margaret Campbell (since she refuses to give higher level books to the unteachables, and instead encourages Erin to focus on training her students with discipline and obedience.
One night, two high school students, Eva (a Mexican-American girl and narrator for much of the film) and Sindy (a Cambodian refugee) go to the same convenience store. Eva’s boyfriend, Paco attempts a drive-by shooting, intending to kill another student in the store, but misses, accidentally killing Sindy’s boyfriend. As a witness, Eva must testify at court and she intends to “protect her own”.
After confiscating a racist drawing of one of the black students, Gruwell begins to teach about the racist propaganda, mass-killings and other horrors from the Holocaust to the class. This is the initial step towards getting the students to realize the errors in the way they perceive life, its purpose, and others. Gruwell does additional, unorthodox exercises to teach tolerance and morality to the students. Most importantly, Erin allows her students to take a notebook to write down their thoughts and stories and they could anonymously submit their notebooks for her to read.
Yet, the department head, Campbell, is strongly against these practices and believes that these troublesome students are not able to understand literary works, to be inspired to learn more and to effectively express their thoughts. Erin’s husband feels neglected and decides to divorce her. Erin is able to persevere since she works an additional job to fund for more books, field trips to museums, and dinners with guest speakers (Holocaust survivors). Her dedication to her students pay off since they all work together to fund for Miep Gies, make right choices that better themselves (Eva decides to tell the truth about the identity of the student’s murderer) and others and they all agree to have their stories collectively published in The Freedom Writers Diary. Margaret tells her she cannot teach her kids for their junior year. Gruwell fights this decision, and eventually convinces the superintendent to permit her to teach her kids’ junior and senior year. The film ends with a note that Gruwell successfully prepared numerous high school students to graduate high school and attend college, for many the first in their families to do so.
Responsibility of a Generation: Freedom Writers
Erin Gruwell was going to be a lawyer but she realized that she wanted to use her knowledge and enthusiasm to inspire students in the classroom. That would be her gift to the next generation. At Woodrow Wilson Classical High School, Erin thought that she was going to teach bright, eager students, but to her surprise, her assignment was to discipline the inner-city students who were disrespectful, violent and apathetic to education. Instead of quitting or dealing with the teens as if she was their babysitter, Erin was more determined to get through to the students and to inspire them.
It was rough considering many students didn’t show up to class, and those that did ignored her lectures and continued talking, fighting, painting nails and making cat-calls. When Erin went home, her husband was becoming increasingly needy and selfish, her father had his doubts about her teaching troublesome, apathetic non-white kids and to top it all off, her colleagues and the department head did not want to give her the necessary reading materials or support because they believed that those students were going to end up pregnant, dead or in jail anyway. Despite all of this, Erin continued to show up to work and try to have lectures to the remaining students. One day, a student, Tito, drew a racist drawing of a black student, Jamal. Jamal was upset from receiving this drawing and hearing other students making fun of him, while the other black students were silent. Erin confiscated the drawing since it was distracting the class, but when she saw what it was, she became angry. Erin started to mock some of the students for thinking that they were from the baddest gangs and told them that the most infamous gang was the Nazis because they took over countries instead of city blocks, they killed millions of people instead of a few people every week. From this, the students began to realize that there was something wrong with killing people because of their differences, especially their race. Erin realized that before she could teach the students anything, she had to gain their respect and their trust. Thus, the next couple of class exercises, in a thought provoking and interactive way, Erin had the students see how others had endured the same kind of hardships that they have. The most influential exercise was when the students had the option to take up composition notebooks and write about their day, life or whatever they wanted, and that Erin would read their entries if they anonymously put their notebooks in a closet shelf. After one night, she saw that the entire class left their notebooks to be read and from this activity she learned more about them.
After this, Erin decided to change her lesson plan to focus on the Holocaust and tolerance. However, Margaret, the department head, was adamant in thinking that Gruwell’s students did not deserve new books and field trips, and thus, shut down any support or resources that would help Erin her endeavors. Once again, Erin’s determination shone through since she worked a second job to fund for the class: books, weekend field trips to the Holocaust museum, and dinners with guest speakers (Holocaust survivors). It seemed the more trust and cooperation she received from the class, the more antagonism she received from Margaret, other teachers and including Erin’s husband. Despite all of this, earning the student’s trust and allowing them to have a voice benefited her since the students took the initiative to organize and have a fundraiser to pay for Miep Gies. After Gies’ inspirational speech, Erin endured more personal and professional hardships, but each time, she stood her ground and demonstrated her love and dedication to her students. This demonstration of perseverance, love and open-mindedness inspired her students to realize their own self-worth and connections to each other. In return, her students graduated and went on to inspire their peers and future generations. To this day, Erin is an advocate for educational reform.
Margaret Campbell had 30 years of experience teaching in the classrooms. She had seen it all and had been through it all. She worked hard and had to endure a lot of pain to be in her present position as a respected department head of a formerly prestigious school. From her viewpoint, the integration code allowed for bad students to corrupt the good students. Because of this, she didn’t want to give the at-risk kids a chance because she believes that the students who actually put forth the effort to learn should receive recognition and extra support. Margaret inspires or reinforces these ideals with the other teachers since they all have this belief of adhering to the curriculum, the teacher guidelines and just waiting for your turn to get a better position or to get out of Woodrow Wilson High. That’s why Margaret’s conservative beliefs were not compatible with Erin’s determination to help the “unteachable” kids and her use of unorthodox techniques in the lesson plan. Margaret was infuriated by the fact that Erin disrespected her authority as an experienced teacher and as the department head. Especially since Erin was doing all of this for the same “bad” kids who would become degenerates like their parents before them. Margaret fought hard to put Erin back in her place, but she failed.
In Eva’s case, the legacy that her father passed on to her affected her decisions in life. Eva was raised in the Long Beach projects, but had a loving family that protected her from most of its horrors during her early childhood. Eva’s father emphasized the importance of Mexican culture, protecting one’s self, and most importantly, loyalty to one’s people. “Protect your own”, those were the words that Eva lived by, especially when a gang took her relative’s life and when the LA police wrongly accused, arrested and jailed Eva’s father for the same murder. Eva learned the importance of self-preservation, thus she had to do whatever to survive on the streets. She joined a Latino girl gang so that she could belong with girls like her and endured the hazing. From that she became delinquent and was forced to go to school by her probation officer. She didn’t care about school because she knew that her white teachers didn’t care about her. Besides, she had bigger problems to worry about like not being shot when she walks on the street and protecting her people (her family and her gang) . That’s why when her boyfriend, Paco, did a driveby at the convenience store, Eva said nothing and went along with the popular belief that it was a black classmate who killed Sindy’s boyfriend. Eva saw the grief and pain in Sindy’s eyes, but she knew that when she testified in court, she had to lie in order to protect her boyfriend and her gang.
When Erin Gruwell began teaching the class, Eva believed that Erin was another white teacher who would give up on the class within a day. Yet, as Erin proved Eva and her peers wrong, like her peers, Eva began to lighten up. From Erin’s unorthodox teachings, Eva was hesitant in why Erin would care so much about her and the rest of the class, but as Erin gained the class’s trust and respect, she slowly gained Eva’s as well. Erin gave Eva a chance to express herself through writing, to learn from her peers and to see that there is a world outside of the projects. From the Miep Gies speech, Eva learned that anyone can be hero because being a hero is about doing the right thing.
Plus, Eva realized that she had to tell the truth at the trial in order prevent an innocent man from going to jail. It’s one thing to have loyalty, but when someone is wrong one has to stand against them instead of standing with them. From her actions in the courtroom, she lost the respect of her gang (and almost died), but she gained the respect of her peers who were different from her. Thus, tolerance of each other’s difference and recognition of each other’s humanity were the things that Eva and her classmates inherited from Erin. Eva will use what she learned to be a better person and to do what is right when the time comes.
Which Will Be Your Story?
Erin Gruwell Margaret Campbell Eva Benitez
Synopis of The Grandmasters
The Grandmasters or Yi dai zong shi is a 2013 Hong Kong-Chinese action drama directed by Wong Kar-Wai. The film chronicles the life of the Kung Fu grandmaster, Yip Man from the 1930s in Foshan, and his flight to Hong Kong after the Second Sino-Japanese War.The film also illustrates how his life intersected the life of Gong Er, the female Kung Fu master from the Gong family (who were well-known for their techniques and mastery of Kung Fu).
Before Yip Man turned 40, he described his life as springtime: he trained in Weng Chun Kung Fu since the age of seven, he was later inducted into the Southern Chinese marital arts association, married his wife Cheung Wing-Sing and had two beautiful children by her. It all begins to change when Gong Yutian, a martial arts master from the Northern Chinese Panmartial Arts Association, announces that he is retiring and has appointed Ma San, his best pupil, as his heir in the North. Then, he proposes that the South should have its own heir. A flurry of discussions and battles erupt as each master fights for the position. The Southern masters decide on Ip Man to represent them, and Ip proceeds to be tested by three Southern masters before he challenges Gong Yutian. Gong Yutian gracefully loses and accepts Yip Man as the winner, but Gong Er (Yutian’s daughter) sets out to regain her family’s honour by challenging Ip Man. The important rule of this battle was “whoever breaks a piece of furniture during the fight will be the loser”. The fight was intense and breathtaking, but in the end, Yip broke a rail. Yip Man and Gong Er become friends and keep in contact despite the events that follow.
The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War disrupted Ip Man’s plans to move his family to Northern China. Ip Man and his family descend into poverty and eventually, his wife and children die from starvation. Meanwhile, Ma San becomes a traitor to his people and adopted Kung Fu family by supporting the Japanese, stealing the Gong Family secret and killing his own master, Gong Yutian. When Gong Er hears the news from her elders, she vows to never teach or marry until she has avenged her father, despite the fact that the elders told her that Yutian’s final words were not of vengeance. In December of 1940, Gong Er defeats Ma San after a brutal and intense fight.
In the hope of starting a career as a martial arts teacher, Ip Man moves to Hong Kong. Here he earns a reputation after defeating all of the local masters. Yip Man and Gong Er’s paths intersect once more in December 1950, when he asks for a rematch. But Gong Er refuses because she wanted her family’s style of Kung Fu to disappear into history. The film then fast-forwards to the 1952, when Ip Man and Gong Er meet each other for the last time. Gong confesses to Ip that she has romantic feelings for him right from the beginning, yet their sense of morality prevented both individuals from acting on it. She dies shortly after. Ip Man’s school flourishes. Off screen, it is stated that Ip Man died in 1972.
Responsibility of a Generation: The Grandmasters
As mentioned before Yip Man had training in the Weng Chun style of Kung Fu since he was seven. When his 70 year old master first took him in, his master passed on his own legacy by telling Yip the most important thing in life. “ One’s sash is one’s honor. From now on, you will rely on this honor.” These words proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy because everything he did, he did it with honor and morality. Other masters reinforced his sense of honor and his good use of Kung Fu through their training or tests. For example, after Gong Yutian proposed that the Southern Martial Arts Association should have an heir, many of the southern masters thought of Yip Man, but he was not quite ready. Thus, each one taught him not only a different style of Kung Fu, but from these tests, Yip Man also was able to understand and see each person as a living being using Kung Fu as a channel to help them become more enlightened and more at peace. Seeing all living beings is the final stage of martial arts. For that, one must see themselves and secondly, the world. At this point, the masters were helping him accomplish the third stage.
Even Gong Yutian’s philosophical test/Kung Fu battle was another opportunity where Yip Man exhibited how he uses his goodness, honor and wits in Kung Fu. On the surface level, the battle’s goal seems to be about testing Yip Man’s physical martial art ability, but in reality Yutian wanted to see Yip Man’s true intentions for becoming the heir. Yutian asks him, how can the South teach or integrate with the North? Yip Man replies that Yutian only sees Kung Fu as a North and as a South or rather symbolically as the very cake that he is holding. For Yip, Kung Fu is the world to him. Then he goes on to say that the so called idea of what is most perfect seems somehow defective, thus, only by having flaws can we improve. At this moment, the cake breaks and Yip passes the test. After the battle, Yutian reminds Yip Man that although he has the Gong family’s honor, he hopes that Yip will be like him and use his honor and morality to lead other people. Hence, Yutian hopes that he can instill the importance of honor and goodness in Yip Man, so that he too, can instill it into others.
After this battle, Gong Er, the daughter of Gong Yutian, challenges Yip Man to regain her family’s honor. During their fight, no one must break any furniture, but since Yip Man was the first to do so, as a man of his word, he accepted his defeat. This battle also sparked a potential love affair between him and Gong Er, but since both individuals did not want to desecrate their commitments to their own respective partners, Yip and Gong focused more on their friendship.
Life after that was not easy for Yip Man since he endured death of his family and friends, poverty and other things. However, as Yip Man said himself, “a martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Thus, the fact that Yip Man was able to stand up against the tragedies of life and to continue to see out his grand vision of spreading Weng Chun, made him a truly honorable grandmaster. And he passed on the importance of honor and the love of teaching Weng Chun to the next generation, his pupils.
Gong Yutian explains to his daughter, “People live in this life and their skills carry on into the next. Some come out into the spotlight ad become famous, while some remain in the background and perfect their inner nature. They are both a product of their times.” Ironically his best pupil, San and his daughter, Er turned out to be in these different categories, respectively.
Ma San had the best master (one from the premier Kung Fu family) to train him in the different styles of Kung Fu, but unfortunately Yutian could not teach San what he did not want to learn or accept. Gong Yutian always had to remind San that Kung Fu is like a sword: it is to be hidden, not used to kill. Ma San silently acquiesced to Yutian’s scoldings, but San secretly rejected the conservative views and uses of Kung Fu. San was very ambitious in nature, and he hated obeying Yutian. Yutian had already assigned him as the heir to the Northern Panmartial Arts Association and retired, but for San, that wasn’t enough. San needed more power and to eventually outperform his own master. At this point, the Japanese invaded China and thus began the Second Sino-Japanese War. He believed that as the times changed, he must always be prepared to change and adapt as well. In order to survive and to be the best, he had to kill, obey when necessary and literally fight his way to the top. Ma San was determined to be in power, thus, he switched his loyalities to the Japanese forces and for this, he was awarded the position, President of the Sheyang Cooperation Association. In addition to that, there was high demand for obtaining the Gong Family’s possessions and knowledge of Kung Fu, therefore, San tried to get Yutian to tell him signature move. Unknowingly, Yutian reminds him of what it is and that San still continues to not fully grasp the concept and purpose of the move. But San’s anger at Yutian in always adhering to tradition, and for not fully utilizing Kung Fu, he attacks his master (and Yutian dies from complications). San steals the Gong family’s possession (the Kung Fu techniques and knowledge) and sells this knowledge to the Japanese. Thus, San attempts to pass on the shallow, aggressive side of Kung Fu to his Japanese peers, future generations of Japanese soldiers and Chinese men. Yet Gong Er comes back to prevent his legacy from continuing.
Gong Er grew up watching her father defend the family’s prestige of being one of the best Kung Fu families that China has ever seen. Yutian passed on the Gong family’s most prized possession by teaching her the Gong styles of Kung Fu. Overtime, Er learned the importance of maintaining the family’s honor and the notion that the Gong family never loses. That’s why she was worried about her father fighting Yip Man because she knew that the family’s honor would be threatened. When her fears became reality, she rose to the occasion and challenged Yip Man to restore the Gong family’s honor. During the fight, Gong had many confusing feelings towards Yip Man since she was attracted to his purity and dedication to Kung Fu, but at the same time, he was a competitor against the Gong family. After Er’s victory, she and Yip Man kept in contact through ambiguously romantic or platonic letters.
Since her father retired from being an active grandmaster, his final wish for Er was that she give up the Kung fu lifestyle and marry her fiancé. Being the loyal and virtuous daughter that she was, Er would have done that if it wasn’t for the drastic change in events, the Japanese invasion and Ma San’s betrayal. The elders told her about her father’s murder and tried to convince her that he did not want vengeance. One elder told her that it’s best to not start a war and to just accept that Ma San has killed her father, took over the school, betrayed everyone and stole the Gong family’s possessions. It’s the will of heaven. He also reminds her that her father wanted her to live a happy life, so she should just get married and have children. Gong Er responded to all of this by respectfully chastising the elders for not being indignant about Ma San’s crimes and not wanting to avenge her father (their Kung Fu brother), and then Er told them that she cannot live a happy life without having her father’s death being avenged. Despite “heaven’s will”, Gong Er tells them that she is the instrument of heaven and then storms out to have a funeral for her father and to find Ma San.
Before she can attempt to seek revenge, Gong Er knew that she had to make the most important choice of her life: to give up her future as a wife, mother and her privilege of passing on her Kung Fu style by avenging her father or to keep the traditional roles and allow Ma San get away with murder. After praying and seeking signs from her deceased father in the temple, ultimately, she chose revenge because restoring her father’s and her ancestors’ honor was more important than her own life. Despite the fact that San, her Kung Fu brother, killed her father and threatened to overshadow the Gong legacy, she still treated him with respect. In fact, she would not stealthily attack San or fight him in the house that he was living in. Thus, she had to find Ma San at an opportune time to fight him. It wasn’t until she found him in the train station when the final showdown took place.
This fight was extremely important because this was when two people, both products of their time, had to fight to defend which of their ideals (honor vs. ambition) would survive and become a legend.
Which Will Be Your Story?
Yip Man Ma San Gong Er
Afterthoughts on Media’s Role in Cross-Cultural Understanding
Film can help with cross-cultural understanding by being an additional method of learning another person’s message and a few aspects of their culture and history. Film often dramatizes the message and aspects of the culture to make the story itself look more attractive to a broader audience. Yet, this superficiality of film can be useful since it can be the first and/or only way a person from another culture is able to see and learn about the other culture or story. Even though film can be considered as the eye-catching introduction, it is imperative to know that film should not be used as the summary, as the details and definitely not as the conclusion of a culture. That’s why it is important to use other modes of media to get the full picture of one’s culture.
Using the videochat in Skype, my partner and I were able to see and hear each other as if we were in the same physical space. The only shortcoming of a Skype videochat is the same as physically talking to someone, words spoken can be misinterpreted or hard to decipher. Chatting through text alleviates this problem, and for me, I was able to understand Cinderalla’s explanations and vice versa. Therefore, from these conversations, I learned that our own cultural experiences are so isolated and therefore film is easily taken as truth outside of its original culture. After watching Freedom Writers, my partner rejected her prior knowledge (that racism and discrimination no longer existed in the U.S) in order to believe that extreme cases were happening everywhere in the country. From Skype, I was able to affirm that there continues to be a lot of racial discrimination in many cities and states in the country, but these examples are often not extreme. Most are subtle microaggressions, but they are just as damaging to the oppressed. Watching The Grandmasters, there were references, deeper and multiple meanings that I would not have noticed if it wasn’t for Cinderalla. On a basic level, I understood and sympathized with Gong Er’s conflict in having to choose between an unconventional role that she was great at, and the traditional role as wife and mother. Cinderalla explained to me that in China’s tradition, if a woman gets married, she never belongs to her previous family. Gong Er wanted to take revenge on Ma San by using her Kung Fu, which is forbidden for a married woman. Thus, she had to relieve her marriage and get the freedom of using her inherited kung fu from her ancestors.
The essence of what I learned from watching both films and from talking to Cinderalla, was that given the knowledge and resources, we all have a responsibility to use these resources and prior knowledge to effectively learn more about each other, help each other and to pass on what we learned to our peers and future generations.