It's 1960, and the first Jamaicans have moved into the road. Jerome Monaham previews a new film that confronts prejudice
There are important lessons about education at the heart of Wondrous Oblivion, a new British film in cinemas at the end of next month.
Its hero, 11-year-old David Wiseman, may be receiving the best schooling his parents Victor and Ruth can afford, but it's the instruction he gains from his neighbours that ultimately has the power to open his eyes about the world.
It's 1960 and David, the son of Jewish wartime refugees, is operating largely in a day-dream - passionate about cricket but oblivious to his complete lack of skill and the generally dismissive attitude of his team-mates towards him. His school appears stuck in a kind of vacuum - mono-cultural and complacent. Meanwhile, back home things are changing with the arrival of the Samuels - the first Jamaican family to settle in the neighbourhood.
Soon their lively music is breaking in on the drab work-focused Wiseman household. But it's when the father, Dennis Samuels, builds cricket nets in his backyard that David is enticed over the fence. Dennis spots David's potential and begins to coach him while friendship grows between David and Judith, the middle Samuels daughter. Unfortunately, such a situation cannot long survive the intrusion of adult prejudices and unhappiness. The former in the shape of the increasing hostility among the street's English inhabitants towards the newcomers and the latter, born of Ruth Samuels'
growing attraction to Dennis.
Wondrous Oblivion is a film with great school use potential. It is ideal for introducing citizenship concerns ranging from Britain's ethnic diversity to human rights and the importance of empathy. The dilemma facing the Wisemans is how to respond to the Samuels when the pressure is on for them to join in the street's disapproval? It is a demand that Ruth is quick to challenge: "I am an immigrant; should I teach my son to despise immigrants?"
Such lessons in tolerance are not the reason Wondrous Oblivion went down a storm at a screening in central London during last October's National School's Film Week. The audience, made up largely of key stage 3 and 4 pupils, was captivated. Most of the characters are well defined, though the main focus is on the Wisemans and their development. The transformation of Victor from world-weary drudge to someone capable of playfulness and true partnership with his young wife is particularly moving. So, too, is his decision, against all his "keep one's head down" instincts, to confront the racists when their hostility towards the Samuels escalates from poison-pen notes to arson.
In the end, while the film certainly opts for an optimistic ending, it is not one without sadness, since the Wisemans' upward mobility means they are not to remain the Samuels' neighbours for long.
It would be a shame if Wondrous Oblivion fails to secure the cinema audience it warrants, but given its modest promotional budget it may struggle. On video or DVD it deserves to enjoy longer-life in schools to prompt discussion, story-telling and family-history investigations.
Released (cert PG) nationwide April 23. Online resources on citizenship, narrative and film study: www.filmeducation.org