Within and without walls.
I want to discuss the recent French film success The Class (Entre les murs, 2008), but also an earlier and comparable film by Bertrand Tavernier. Both are really interesting films dealing with education and teaching. And they are part of a long-running cycle in French cinema, reaching back to Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite (1933) and continuing to the recent documentary success directed by Nicolas Philibert, Etre et Avoir (2002).
[WARNING: Plot spoilers ahead]
The Class presents the audience with a year in the life of a suburban Paris school, focusing on one teacher, François, and the class to whom he teaches French. The film is based on a book by an actual teacher, François Marin. Marin himself plays the protagonist François. And the students are from a school in a Zone d’Education Prioritaire.
The Sight & Sound synopsis reads in part:
” He [François] and his colleagues are shown teaching inattentive yet opinionated adolescents, some of whom have significant behavioural and personal problems.
François attempts to engage his pupils critically, using every opportunity to make them reflect on themselves and the subjects being studied. However, his efforts to create a stimulating learning environment are continually undermined by the need to impose discipline on frequently unruly and insolent pupils.”
This is fine in terms of an ‘official’ plot. However, the mise en scène, especially the performance of a predominately non-professional cast, suggests a different ‘subplot’. The film appears to present a positive engagement of a liberal teaching approach with pupils from deprived situations. But this liberal ethos is undermined by the developments we see taking place in the classroom.
The French title, translating as ‘within the walls’, offers a more accurate rendition of the film. For the students are clearly caught within the confines of this educational institution, deemed to be in their interests. I should say that they did appear fairly motivated in comparison with some actual British student groups I have encountered. The most dramatic and violent moment occurs when an African student from Mali, Souleymane, accidentally strikes a fellow pupil with his satchel.
The classroom in which these students sit increasingly becomes a ‘stage’ for their teacher, François. Good teaching navigates a fine line between display and engagement. What I noticed was that as the year progresses François becomes increasingly taken with the display he presents to these students. Despite his frequent questions and the usage of their cultural language, François is ‘presenting’. One notices that François’ interaction with students is limited to certain extrovert students. The point is emphasised when one black girl, often seen in shot but never speaking, confesses at the end of the year that ‘she does not know what she has learnt.’ Francois’ response is to demur and insist that she will discover that she has learnt something: but I incline to think the student was the more accurate. Ginette Vincendeau in Sight & Sound suggested that in both book and film it is “beur and black pupils [that] are the most disruptive (the white pupils are visually and orally marginalised) . . .” I am not certain this is completely so, but it does fit with the power relations that the film dissects.
The climax of the classroom interaction is the one occasion when François loses his ‘cool’ with his challenging charges. He calls two girl students pétasses (‘skanks’ according to the subtitles, I think ‘slags’ gives a sense of this). The incident escalates as Souleymane discovers that Francois has labelled him as ‘limited’ during a teacher assessment. Souleymane’s abrupt exit, with a girl struck by his satchel, leads to a disciplinary hearing. On one of the few occasions that we learn about situations beyond the school we are told that expulsion for Souleymane would mean him having to return to his home country of Mali. Despite this, the hearing leads to his expulsion. His mother, who has to have the French of the hearing translated for her by her son, sits and listens, displaying a clear awareness of the power relations being bought to bear on Souleymane.
There seemed to me a clear intent by the director, Laurent Cantet, to demonstrate the limitations of the liberal teaching ethos. The incident involving Souleymane was taken from another script written by Cantet. In an interview he suggests a rather ambiguous standpoint. “The film is utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general.” Quite a few critics saw the film as endorsing the approach of François and regarded the climatic confrontation as demonstrating “the fragility of a world in which a single word . . . can bring a year’s work, a lifetime investment in a career, and the modest hopes of a young man’s family, crashing down.” (Sight & Sound review). My teaching friends tended to be much more critical of the teacher François. And for me, those positive reviews fail to pick up on the nature of interaction of teacher and students. And this interaction is actually a manifestation of the social and economic relations that determine the situation of both teachers and students. However, I think the film fails to make this point that strongly, partly because of its enclosed representation of a school: by not going beyond its walls.
By comparison Bertrand Tavernier’s film, It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd’hui, 1999), has a very overt political discourse. The film focuses on Daniel, a head-teacher in an infant school in an-ex-mining area in Northern France. Like The Class, It All Starts Today is based on actual experience. In this case it is the memories described to Tavernier by Dominique Sampiero. However, Sampiero did not write a book and Tavernier himself developed his accounts into a scripted story. And unlike The Class, whilst there are clearly non-professional adult and child performers, there are also professional actors cast in the film. Presumably this was in part due to Tavernier writing in scenes of life away from the school, both within Daniel’s own family and within the families of some of the school students. The plotting of the story produces an uneven narrative: parts of the film parallel the documentary feel of The Class: other sequences are clearly dramatisations.
But this scripting also introduces a clear political and economic discourse. The mining town of Hernaing has seen pit closures. The mayor informs us that employment is at 34%. We see the poverty and deprivation when the children return from school. In one traumatic case unpaid electricity bills lead to a suicide and infanticide by a mother. Daniel, like François, is clearly on the sides of the students. But he is also clearly set off from the authorities and the establishment. Whilst François becomes a participant in the ‘trial’ of Souleymane, Daniel is shown repeatedly in conflict with his superiors and local agencies. One of his conflicts with authorities is over attempts to have the school designated as a ‘priority zone’. And the depiction of violence includes the complete trashing of the school by two local teenagers.
I found The Class created a fine sense of the school and the class, with impressive performances from the students. It All Starts Today achieves this only intermittently with its far younger students. But I felt that the latter film did have a more developed political discourse. Both are well made and well worth viewing. Note also, both were filmed in anamorphic formats, (i.e. 2.35:1), so if you watch it away from the cinema screen, check it has not been cropped. You will miss quite a lot!
The interview with Laurent Cantet is in Sight & Sound November 2008 issue: the film review of the film and the article by Ginette Vincendeau are in the March 2009 issue. And there is a review of the Tavernier film in the August 1999 issue.
Perceptive review. A minor inaccuracy: the author of the book and the actor is Francois Begaudeau. Marin is the name of the character.
Another film in the long line of films about the French education system worth looking at is Truffaut’s 1976 film, L’argent de poche (‘Small Change’ or ‘pocket money’). I’m never quite sure about Truffaut’s films about adults but he is on surer ground with children. Unlike many films about children, the film doesn’t make them overly precocious or sentimentalise their experiences. It’s a bit more optimistic than both Ca commence aujourdhui and Entre les murs (despite highlighting an individual tragedy) but avoids the overblown sentimentality of Les choristes (which, alas, is far more popular with French teachers than all of the above mentioned). The teacher’s final address to the class who are about to move on (Jean-Francois Stevenin had a singular talent for representing ‘goodness’) should be shown to all student teachers.