Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Class: Up close and personal

The Class (Entre Les Murs) was up close and personal for me. The scenes in Laurent Cantet’s French language film took me back to the thousands of hours I spent teaching migrant students in very multicultural secondary schools in Australia.

If you’ve ever had much to do with adolescents, it is not hard to empathise with its main character François Marin (François Bégaudeau). He struggles to maintain order and purpose for his class of young teenagers whilst trying to create a flexible and humane classroom.

As indicated by the original French title, Between the Walls, this can be a very claustrophobic experience. His teaching space is tiny and sparse with none of the technological aides of 21st Century education. A visit to a fairly primitive computer lab is a refreshing if infrequent break from chalk, leaky ballpoint pens and exercise books. The walled, concrete playground is more like a prison exercise yard, a too-obvious visual metaphor.

We are slowly introduced to the individual students as each struggles to find their own identity in a sometimes hostile society and tough environment. The frustrations of both teachers and parents to make sense of it all and create opportunities for them is starkly portrayed.

The tension in the story builds as François’s egalitarian style leads to an explosive climax. His often-confronting dialogue with the students erupts into a confrontation where he wishes that he could drag his words back.

At the end we are left with both despair and hope, a combination that is only too familiar to many teachers.

It is a remarkable mixture of real life and fiction. Reality film in its true sense. The school community of Françoise Dolto Junior High in Paris' 20th arrondissement make up almost the entire cast: teachers, students and parents. François is a teacher himself who wrote the original story on which the film is based.

This movie is remarkable for several reasons, apart from its cast. Among these are:
  • It is based on Bégaudeau’s prize-winning semi-autobiographical book exploring the experiences of a teacher in inner Paris junior high school.

  • It is told without taking sides. The views of teachers who disagree with his approach get a fair airing.

  • The quality of the acting by amateurs is outstanding, especially the students.

  • The use of three hand-held Sony HD cameras in the classroom brings both authenticity and immediacy, without the audience feeling overly aware of their presence in such a confined space.

  • The use of improvisation to bring the script to life worked exceptionally well.

  • The narrative evolved from the original script in unexpected ways. According to François:
"One day, I asked Carl to be very aggressive toward his teacher, and he proposed a scene of unexpected violence. A few seconds later, I suggested another situation : he has come from another junior high school where he had been kicked out; here he wants to pass for a nice kid. Instantly, he created a quiet character, intimidated by François. The scene is actually in the film."
  • The genuine voices of the adolescents:
"Most films about adolescents show them as monosyllabic. For us, without a doubt, the dominant force of The Class is the loquacious and lively adolescent, rather than melancholic and inhibited."
These quotes and the photo above are from the Press Kit which can be downloaded from the official website.

The Class was the winner of the Palme D’Or at 2008 Cannes Film Festival.

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