Saturday, March 13, 2010

[SFS Talkies] The Class (Entre Les Murs)


The Class won the Cannes International Film Festival's Palme d'Or back in 2008, and it's not hard to see why. Although a film that's set against the backdrop of a school and featuring classroom dynamics between the teacher and his students, it's hardly anything close to the glossy Hollywood counterparts that we've also grown so familiar with, following formula such as having an inspiration teacher lead a downtrodden class, instilling confidence to go for their dreams, and everyone graduating with flying colours with the rogue of the class having turned over a new leaf, and so on. Instead, this class poses a lot of questions with no answers on the horizon, a snapshot of a full school year, and of the issues that society as a whole is currently facing.

It's documentary-like in treatment, having the camera follow proceedings very closely, starting with the beginning of the year where teachers meet up to welcome the rookie instructors, exchange notes on problematic students, and the likes, before we follow Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau, a real life teacher whose book is what this film is based upon), a French language teacher, and one of his classes, which of course consisted of a myriad of personalities and race as well, becoming a micro-chasm of current society we live in. In some ways it's a mirror, with issues discussed intensely amplified, especially when we extrapolate the diverse groups that the students represent, from new immigrants, to those who have been assimilated into society, but yet still feeling the kind of identity crisis, which can be thought of as the usual teenage angst that on a bigger picture, represent a much larger social issue out there to be addressed with no clear and easy solutions.

There are numerous episodes that we maneuver through, some pleasant, others not so. If anything, it provides that insight to the educational system of another country, which may raise some eyebrows when compared to ours, such as having all your teachers sit around to decide your fate on the report card through a comprehensive, candid discussion, and having 2 of the student class reps sit in to listen in on the proceedings, and then providing a back channel feedback to the student. I suppose this is to prevent abuse of the system, since condemnation by one teacher could possibly be balanced with another's so that victimization is kept in check, with witnesses coming not only from the teaching fraternity, but from the students as well.

And since we know teachers can err, and tempers flare if there's a consistent disciplinary problem that they are at their wits end at dealing with, there's an episode here which really struck me, and more so since it's more of a human nature issue. Sometimes we do or say the things we're sorry about, and because of pride and fear of the repercussions, there's this innate reaction to immediately cover up one's tracks, despite having witnesses around. Words get twisted as we struggle through debunking everyone and to insist that we're misunderstood, and to deny everything vehemently. It's easy to shoot one's mouth off during the heat of the moment, and it's another when reported as is and then trying to spin doctor it. Politicians know and play this kind of game best.

The other significant subplot in the film will be that of the class troublemaker Souleymane (I keep hearing Saruman, one of the villains from JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). A loner who basks himself in loud clothes and a louder mouth, his is the typical story of the guy who sits at the back of the class, ever eager to disrupt lessons, and having a tough guy demeanour to signal others not to mess with him.

As a film, I'd admit this can get quite dry in the beginning, especially when discussions get launched and we become mere spectators to debates which can drag, some topics and barbs being interesting to follow, while others just turn you off, especially when it becomes nothing more than mudslinging. But The Class builds on momentum, going by the adage to save the best for last, yet finishing off as a matter of fact, that the events that transpired, from the start of the school term, signature school events like grading, meet the parents session etc right through to the close of the semester, are nothing but of a cyclic nature, with issues still present that go unaddressed by the time the film ends. That said, The Class is still a fascinating gaze into the French education system, as delivered by real life teachers and students through the carefully crafted roles that they play and represent.

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