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.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

79. French director Laurent Salgues’ debut film “Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust)” (2008): Infusing dignity and elegance to cinema on Africa

The opening sequence of films often indicates the quality of cinema that follows. Writers and journalists are aware that they need to grab the attention of the reader at the outset, not later, if they have to win longer-term attention. In Laurent Salgues’ debut feature film Dreams of dust, the opening sequence will remain an amazing one—one that sets the tone for what would eventually follow.

The opening sequence here captures the rural, dusty, semi-arid Burkina Faso, a West African country on the fringes of the massive Saharan desert, an area known to many as the Sahel. The viewer doesn’t see anyone for a while. Not even animals seem to inhabit the horizon. In the foreground, the viewer sees mounds of dust, like anthills. Suddenly you see, dust-covered humans emerge from holes in the ground, like rats emerging from their holes. These are prospectors digging in archaic mine-shafts (now apparently banned in Burkina Faso) for gold in a god-forsaken part of Africa. That opening shot reminds you of a choreographed musical—only there is no music, only silence and the sounds of workers’ tools. The workers are emerging after toiling underground for several hours constantly at the risk of being buried alive with no one to rescue them if the mine ever caves in. They would leave behind widows and fatherless children, if that were ever to happen.

Dreams of dust is an important film on Africa. First, it exhibits the vigor and competence of a talented French director making a debut feature film armed with his very own script that evolved from an initial idea of a documentary on the lives of these gold miners hunting for gold under unusual circumstances. Second, it is a film made by a European on a real sub-Saharan African subject in a real location. The film is able to raise the cinematic content to a level above mere actions and words (say, compared to the recent award-winning Chadean film Daratt or Dry Season) as it gradually transforms into a metaphysical cinematic essay on the continent’s people, their dreams, their despair, and their infrequent quests for a deeper meaning of their trials and tribulations and an eventual resolution of personal loss in this transient life. Third, it is a film that does not end with the typical hero and heroine riding out into the setting sun, but instead offers an end that would evoke feelings in the viewer’s mind that are similar to those while viewing the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, although the visuals in the two films couldn’t be more starkly dissimilar. Fourth, it underscores the dignity and integrity of the sensitive and pensive African, rarely captured on film or in literature that transcends physical strength. Finally, it attempts to poetically bring on screen the King Arthur like quest of a Holy Grail at the end of the film leaving an open end for the viewer and filmmaker alike, alluding to the literal meaning of the word “Sahel,” which in Arabic means “the shore” as the hero symbolically, as in a mirage, walks into the desert.

The film is a story of a male Nigerien (from Niger, not Nigeria) gold prospector seeking to make a fortune in gold in the neighboring country Burkina Faso. He is an intriguing individual, tall, strong, and an honest worker. He is also a “man with a past”. The film does not reveal much about him; only that he was once a farmer, was married and had a daughter. He is evidently a person with heroic qualities that separate him from his co-workers. He does get attracted to a local attractive woman and her girl child, who naturally remind him of his own family. While several strands of the film are incredibly close to stories that made Westerns and Hollywood films so successful at the box office, Salgues deals with the subject in a way Hollywood would never attempt to shape, by injecting dignity and detachment in the principal character to the world around him.

Initially the viewer would think the film is Blood Diamond revisited in a different and less hospitable environment. Towards the final half hour of the film, the story evolves from a mere “sweat-and-blood” tale of an expatriate into a metaphysical, psychological tale of a man seeking redemption from some sad events in his past. The film makes the viewer to ponder over the common dream of the African immigrant to acquire wealth. Here the African immigrant is not in USA or in Europe but in a neighboring Sahelian country. Here is a fascinating tale of a farmer with money in his pocket opting to become a voluntary slave in a tough environment, quite confident that he will eventually get to his pot of gold. The gold mine could suggest a metaphoric transit point in a long personal journey in the life of a thinking individual, if not the average African immigrant.

There are social pointers in the film that a viewer is not likely to miss. The fatherless girl plays with a doll but interestingly the face of the doll is blackened. The tyrannical boss of the mine is eventually replaced by a hardworking miner who is more understanding of the plight of the workers—perhaps suggesting the waves of change taking place on the continent. However, the title of the film reiterates the intent of the director/writer Salgues. Would the dreams of the African really lead to gold or would it lead to dust? The optimistic film shows both taking place, to different individuals, in different ways.

The film presents the nobility and elegance of African men and women, rarely seen on screen. Words spoken in the film are few and yet the few words contribute inversely to the strength of the film. Senegalese actor Makena Diop plays the intriguing Nigerian farmer Moctar who comes to neighboring Burkina Faso to try his hand in prospecting for gold in a mine in Essakane, where such gold mines did exist before Canadian and South African mining companies earned licenses to excavate gold with more efficient scientific methods recently. Filmgoers could note that the beautiful actor Fatou Tall-Salgues who plays Coumba actually married the director Salgues prior to the filming.

I had the advantage of having visited the rural areas of Burkina Faso and Niger (indirectly discussed in the film) as part of my principal vocation, which involves participating in international efforts to improve livelihoods in the Sahel through increased appropriate agricultural production in the water-scarce environment. However, there were odd bits in the film that did not look real—for instance, the mining boss asks for his fees in Euros rather than CFA, the currency of the region.

I saw the film at the recent edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK 08). Director Laurent Salgues and his cinematographer Crystel Fournier were so impressive with this film that a particular shot of a woman seen through a cascade of water elicited spontaneous clapping from the cine-literate audience. At another juncture, the film showed Indian superstar of yesteryear's Meena Kumari dancing in the Bollywood hit Pakeezah making the Kerala audience wonder if the projectionist had mistakenly switched reels of another film. Salgues was merely showing reality—the workers do watch videos of Indian films in Hindi in the Sahel which are more popular than Hollywood blockbusters.

The film is an interesting tale that insinuates that a sequel could follow. If a sequel does appear, it would be interesting to trace the growth of this interesting director who has so efficiently pooled the technical mastery of Canadian and French production teams to fashion a film with top-notch digital quality that will bring pride to cinema on African subjects. The film won attention at Sundance Film Festival. I am not surprised. It is a film that deserves to be widely seen and critically analyzed, just as Portuguese director Teresa Prata’s film on Mozambique, Sleepwalking Land. Both films provide excellent cinematic examples of Europeans empathetically getting inside the African mind.

P.S. Teresa Prata's Sleepwalking Land was reviewed earlier on this blog.

Monday, January 05, 2009

78. Algerian director Amor Hakkar’s French/Algerian film “La maison jaune (The yellow house)” (2008): Underscoring goodness in humankind

Directed, written, acted (playing the lead role of Mouloud) and co-edited by Amor Hakkar, The yellow house will win hearts anywhere. It is humanistic, deceptively simple and uplifting. Having seen the French/Arabic/Berber language film, the viewer will leave with one thought--there is goodness in all of us, whether Algerian or a citizen of any other nation. It is rare to encounter such movies when violence, evil, and bitterness pervade most films being made these days. Some viewers tend to disparage “feel-good” films because they tend to be escapist, but here is an example where realism rarely goes out of focus.

This Algerian film is apparently the second feature film of the director, who studied in France. The story/screenplay written by Hakkar is simple: a poor Algerian agrarian family, who survives by growing and selling potatoes and vegetables, deals with grief following the untimely death of the eldest son in an accident. The filming appears simple too: no flashy editing distracts the viewer, camera angles are unobtrusive, and the viewer's sensibilities are soothed by the delightful strains of evocative oudh (a string instrument) music. The oudh player Faycal Salhi, who provided the music for the film, was present at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) 2008 to collect on behalf of the Algerian director, the deserving Special Jury Award. The movie had earlier won the top award at the Valencia film festival, the best actor award at the Osian (New Delhi) festival, three awards at the Locarno festival, the special jury prize at the Carthage festival, among other honors elsewhere.

Sociologically, the film criticizes the lack of electricity in some villages of the oil rich country and yet commends the quick remedial, intervention when lapses are brought to the notice of the Algerian government officials. The film is not about economic injustice or government apathy; even though these real issues are present in the backdrop. In the forefront of this wonderful film are issues that are more universal: strong family bonds between husband and wife, between father and children, dead and alive.

The first half of the film deals with the impact of untimely death of the farmer's eldest son in an accident while serving in the police force and the father’s journey to Batna to identify and collect the mortal remains. The second half deals with the husband’s quixotic but dogged plan to bring the shattered life of his wife to normalcy with the help of a video recording made by his son before his death.

The film underlines everything that is positive about the Muslim world in a charming way that is not didactic. Policemen, who have never met the farmer before, help the man by providing him with a hazard light free-of-cost as he travels in the night on a three-wheeled farm tractor without headlights to bring his son's body home. Taxi drivers go out of the way to help him locate addresses in the city. An official at the morgue, instead of taking the farmer to task for “stealing” his son's body circumventing official procedures, takes the trouble to catch up with him on the highway and hands him the signed legal papers approving the release of the dead body. A pharmacist is asked by the farmer for some medicine to cure his wife’s depression from the tragedy, and the well-meaning pharmacist who has heard of a cure (painting the walls of his house yellow) that shares that information with the farmer. Ordinary individuals, who could easily have been indifferent to a poor man, go out of the way to lend a helping hand to man coping with grief. Would such good deeds happen in real life, one could well ask. My answer would be that human bonding when we recognize another person’s grief or loss is quite extraordinary.

What is remarkable about this film is the contribution of one man Omar Hakkar who acts, directs and edits a delightful film that does not criticize at any point what is wrong in society and yet presents a realistic canvas of Berbers in Algeria. The farmer might appear simple and poorly educated, but the film is intelligently crafted killing several birds with one stone. There is criticism of the economic disparity in the film but it is latent. The film also silently underlines the important supportive roles of young girls in a Muslim family, rarely underlined in Arab films.

Hakkar’s film is one of the finest films to emerge from North Africa in recent years almost comparable to Mohamed Asli’s lovely Moroccan film In Casablanca, angels don’t fly, also on the Berber community made in 2004. Hakkar has not just proved his mettle as a director but also as an interesting screenplay writer, who is capable of merging tragedy with low-key visual humor that never goes overboard. Hakkar’s dignified performance in the main role seems contagious—every other character in the film rises above petty minds to lend him a helping hand. The film’s screenplay underlines the need for all of us to tackle grief with courage and adopt a positive outlook at life’s continuity in all weathers. It is a film that reiterates that one can attain the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow through dogged persistence in life, while being gentle and considerate to others.

P.S. In Casablanca, angels don't fly was reviewed earlier on this blog.