Sunday, January 25, 2009

80. French director Laurent Cantet’s “Entre les murs (The Class)” (2008): A beguiling, stimulating feature film on education resembling a documentary

It is not often that you come across a movie that has as its lead actor, the very writer of the novel on which the film is based. Laurent Cantet’s intriguing film The Class has in its lead role of the class teacher, the novelist and co-screenplay-writer Francois Begaudeau. That’s only the first surprise the film pulls on the viewer.

If you went to into the film theatre without knowing much about the film you are likely to think you are watching a documentary. That’s the second surprise—it is not a documentary.

The film is apparently a semi-autobiographical story of the novelist and lead actor Begaudeau. Begaudeau himself was primarily a school teacher before he morphed his own life into a novelist, journalist, and an actor. But wait a moment. Even director Cantet’s parents were teachers. Therefore, it is not surprising that the intimate knowledge of the teaching and the film-making processes get married seamlessly within the film and this contributed substantially to the film being honored as the first French film to win the Golden Palm at Cannes in 21 years!

The literal translation of the film’s title Entre les murs is “between the walls” yet it being distributed outside Francophone territories as The Class. The original French title provides one perspective of the film's content and approach to the content; the other title, yet another perspective. As the film rolls before your eyes, you are mesmerized by Begaudeau, little realizing that the true Svengali of the film is Cantet the director.

Cantet allows the viewer to study the process of educating a fresh class of bubbly and street-smart adolescent kids in a Paris suburban school. Classroom education today, in many parts of the world, has evolved from the dictatorial British format where the learned teacher lectures and the student imbibes what he sees and hears without question. Today, teaching in progressive schools is more democratic, where the teacher allows student participation, where the student is encouraged to talk and become an integral part of the education process, contributing knowingly or unknowingly and “democratically” to the education of other students in the class just as much as the teacher. It is not without intent that one of the bright Internet-savvy kids in the film brings up the subject of Plato’s Republic into discussion, but then the intelligent viewer is forced to recall that teaching for Aristotle’s own students centuries ago was democratic and peripatetic. Begaudeau the teacher is flummoxed and that’s precisely what Cantet the director of the film stresses to the viewer—the very quality (and process) of imparting knowledge today is dissected. Plato wanted a philosopher king to provide for the common good. He also believed democracy would just lead to mob rule, which is basically an oligarchy. Cantet appears to ask the viewer if the teacher is the Platonic philosopher king. Aristotle studied under Plato and disagreed with Plato on almost fundamentally everything. Cantet’s film introduces parallels of bright adolescent kids being educated in the classroom as Aristotle would have been in Plato’s class. Begaudeau teaches his students often like Plato would while adopting the peripatetic approach of Aristotle's own teaching style though confined within the four walls of the class.

Viewing a Grand Prize winner of Cannes at a late night screening of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), having seen four other remarkable feature films earlier in the day can be demanding on any viewer. Surprisingly a few minutes into the film, I felt rejuvenated and alert. Good cinema does that to me. Here was a “documentary” clearly enacted, in some ways like Oliver Stone’s JFK. In JFK, one had professional actors. Here was a film with a script played by young teenage non-actors. It was the first public screening of the film in India.

The film is demanding of the viewer. Many viewers at the IFFK first screening, who had sat through lesser films in content and maturity at the festival, trooped out of the hall while the film was running just after half an hour of the run-time. The film is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

To a casual film goer, the movie would resemble a live recording of a high-school class of boys and girls with a teacher probing the minds of his students, made up of different backgrounds, races, religions and representing various continents. There are tense moments, hilarious repartees, behind the scene meetings of teachers evaluating students, parent teacher meetings and even stocktaking of a year gone by in the school. The film’s content can disappoint some viewers looking for conventional action, sex or heavy intrigue. Cantet's approach to cinema is far removed from the typical Hollywood film. Yet Cantet and the screenplay writing team that included Begaudeau urge the viewer to zoom-out his/her mind from the microscopic events taking place within the confines of the four walls of class--the ethnic tensions, the psychological warfare and the social criticism--as they are equally likely to take place in the wider world outside the class, beyond the school, even beyond France. That is the beguiling aspect of Cantet’s film.

True the film is packed with psychological, social and ethical issues. How all this has been captured on film with verisimilitude is just incredible. There is not a fleeting second in the film when you feel the film is acted out by the students and the teacher(s). It all seems so spontaneous and easy, when it is quite the opposite. How did they do it? They pick up real bubbly Parisian adolescents and tell them they are going to act as students. During rehearsals they are provided a rough idea of what is expected to take place in the class and how they are expected to react. Three cameras are placed in the class room, according to the movie’s official website. And the actors, with no previous experience, act out the “documentary” providing the viewer with a feel of somewhat spontaneous reactions in a real Parisian class. It is quite likely that many of the statements and moods were spontaneous and not "acted" out while being consonant with the screenplay.

The innovation apart, what is extraordinary in this film? One, the film clearly indicates the classroom has evolved from the classroom of To Sir, with Love, or Dead Poet’s Society. Today teaching adolescents is no longer a simple task. Students are well-aware of current social and political issues, thanks to the Internet and related technology. Teachers need to be aware of several bits of information and trivia to be on top of their class. Second, The Class progresses to reveal manipulative student behavior towards their teachers that British cinema revealed decades earlier to us. British films such as Absolution (1978, with Richard Burton as the manipulated educator) and Term of Trial (1962, with Laurence Olivier as the simpleton guru) are vivid examples. Unlike the two entertaining British movies, all the action in Cantet’s The Class is restricted to two school rooms—the actual classroom and another room where teachers interact among themselves or with parents. Third, the film grapples with the question of the broader issues of equality within a classroom, a school and elsewhere in society (director Kieslowski so effectively dealt with the last in his French/Polish film in Three Colors: White). Fourth, the film is about current issues of integration of different cultures that perhaps confront Europe, Canada, and Australia more than it does in the USA. Africans and Asians are now citizens of France but do they get understood by the majority? A student Suleyman says in the film: “I have nothing to say about me because no one knows me but me.”

How many teachers allow for two-way communication in a class? The film presents a growing challenge for educators of today. Can we go back to the days of Aristotle or do we prefer to learn under the teacher who “dictates”? Are we providing the turf for democracy or for dictatorships to emerge in society from the lowly classroom? A related film (and play) dealing with the theme of the "teacher as a dictator" is David Mamet's US film Oleanna (1994) based on his own play with William H. Macy playing the teacher. Both The class and Oleanna provide interesting parallels on student-teacher relationships and real/perceived "sexism" within conventional education.

This is a sensitive film meant for film-goers expecting more than frothy entertainment. The two final shots, somewhat similar, of the film graphically (and silently) capture the entire case of the film that preceded those shots. That was truly remarkable. It deserved the Golden Palm, because it is truly a film that makes the viewer think beyond what is presented on screen. It is a film that uses silence most effectively. Whether it eventually wins the foreign film Oscar in 2009 and whether it wins the heart of the average film-goer are to be seen. What is indisputable is the beguiling felicity with which Laurent Cantet walks on the tightrope between documentary and fiction, holding in his hand a wand to provoke and open the viewers' minds.

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