Images of Teaching and Teachers in the Movies

The review in today’s New York Times of the French quasi documentary “The Class” has re-awakened in me a serious interest that I have in the ways in which teaching and teachers have been represented in films throughout the decades.

One of the things I would like to do in the coming months is to develop a course that looks at “teacher movies” critically and engages participants in discussions of substantive issues of education and representation through the analysis of these films.

I will add to this post at a later date, including the ideas I have been gathering for this project. In the meantime, if any of you have any ideas for films which you think should be included in a such a course, please share them in your comments.

Below is the review of “The Class.”

Movie Review

The Class (2007)

NYT Critics’ Pick This movie has been designated a Critic’s Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

The Class

Sony Pictures Classics

The lines between documentary and drama are often blurred, as in “The Class,” which has young Parisians playing fictional versions of themselves.

September 26, 2008

Learning to Be the Future of France

  • By MANOHLA DARGIS

Published: September 26, 2008

The young bodies crowding “The Class,” an artful, intelligent movie about modern French identity and the attempt to transform those bodies into citizens through talk, talk, talk, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. With their cellphones and pouts, these bored, restless junior high students look pretty much like the fidgety progeny of Anytown, U.S.A. One difference being that these African, Arab and Asian Parisians live in a country that insists its citizens have only one cultural identity, even if it is an identity— as France’s smoldering suburbs vividly suggest — many of these same young people don’t feel welcome to share.

“The Class” isn’t directly about civil unrest and French identity as a republican ideal, though these issues run through it like a powerful current, keeping the children and adults (and the filmmaking) on edge. Rather, the director, Laurent Cantet — using a small team and three high-definition video cameras — keeps a steady eye on the children, these anxious, maddening little people flailing and sometimes stalling on the entryway to adulthood. He shows them giggling, arguing, boldly and shyly answering questions. He marks their victories and failures and, with brutal calm, shares some of the other lessons schoolchildren learn on their way to the office, factory, shop, unemployment line and perhaps even prison: sit down, raise your hand, stand up, get in line, keep quiet.

That’s tough stuff, but “The Class” slides its points in at an angle, letting them emerge from the children’s chatter instead of hanging its politics around these tender necks like placards. For audiences accustomed to big-screen pedagogical imperatives soaked in guilt and deep-fried in piety, this makes for an exotic change (though the HBO show “The Wire” covered similar ground) and might sound perilously dry. But “The Class,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens the New York Film Festival on Friday night, is as much an emotional experience as a head trip. Mr. Cantet would prefer you to think (he is a French filmmaker, after all), but he’s enough of an entertainer to milk an occasional tear.

Just about as tightly focused as a documentary by Frederick Wiseman, the story unfolds almost entirely inside a school in the working-class, fast-gentrifying 20th arrondissement, a residential district on the city’s farthermost eastern edge. You don’t see much of the neighborhood (its most famous residents are taking the big sleep in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery), though you do get to know several dozen of its younger inhabitants. A rainbow coalition of sullen boys and mouthy girls ages 13 and 14, the students are meant to be learning the finer points of the French language, parsing the differences between the passé composé and the imparfait, distinctions that seem nearly as foreign to them as does the reedy young teacher down in front.

One of the most remarkable things about “The Class” is that this quietly stubborn, prickly man is François Bégaudeau, who wrote the autobiographical novel on which the movie is based. (In France the original title for both is “Between the Walls.”) Like the students, the administrators and other teachers — all culled from the same school in the 20th — Mr. Bégaudeau is playing a fictionalized version of himself developed through weekly workshops, improvisations and a shoot that lasted a full academic year. Like Mr. Cantet’s shooting style in this movie, he initially comes across as free-flowing, even loose, a guy whose jocular teasing suggests that he wants to be seen more as a friend than as an authority figure, one of us rather than one of them.

He isn’t, which proves this classroom’s most difficult, painful lesson. Over the course of the year, François pushes and prods at his students, encouraging a bashful Chinese boy, Wei (Wei Huang), and trying to navigate around two pint-size terrors — a lippy Arab girl, Sandra (Esméralda Ouertani), and a belligerent African heartbreaker, Souleymane (Franck Keïta) — who test his patience with unsettling effectiveness. Souleymane, son of Malian immigrants, flashes some Arabic tattooed on his arm, challenging everyone with the barely suppressed rage that radiates off him at times like a fever. Sandra, meanwhile, in one of the story’s few false notes, announces that she has read “The Republic” on her own time, a revelation that feels more directed at the audience’s prejudices than at François’s.

Despite this Platonic nod, Mr. Cantet, who shares the screenwriting credit with Mr. Bégaudeau and Robin Campillo, tends to keep his ideas more strategically nestled in the unassuming guise of a documentary-inflected realism that plays a lot like life because that’s precisely where it comes from. Here Mr. Cantet — whose earlier features include “Human Resources” and “Time Out,” two other dramas about systems of power — has done that rarest of things in movies about children: He has allowed them to talk. There’s no question that he’s occasionally overeager to speak on their behalf, but he’s listening too, engaged in a conversation that’s as urgently necessary in this country as it is in France. And, just in case you don’t have a festival ticket, rest easy: “The Class” will open later this year.

THE CLASS

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.

Directed by Laurent Cantet; written (in French, with English subtitles) by Mr. Cantet, François Bégaudeau and Robin Campillo, based on the novel “Entre les Murs” (“Between the Walls”) by Mr. Bégaudeau; directors of photography, Pierre Milon, Catherine Pujol and Georgi Lazarevski; edited by Ms. Campillo and Stéphanie Léger; produced by Carole Scotta, Caroline Benjo, Barbara Letellier and Simon Arnal; released by Sony Pictures Classics. At Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, as part of the 46th New York Film Festival. Running time: 2 hours 8 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: François Bégaudeau (François), Wei Huang (Wei), Esméralda Ouertani (Sandra) and Franck Keïta (Souleymane).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *