“The Class” – a film to look for

Teachers often take a jaundiced eye to films that claim to depict the classroom experience. It’s akin to being skeptical about the newspapers because every time they present a story with which you have actual familiarity they rarely seem to get it right.

I saw two excellent films last week. One was Entre les Murs – renamed The Class in English. (The other was Milk, currently playing locally in Rhinebeck and Millerton).

The Class is set  between the walls of one Paris classroom. It details a year in the life of a class and its teacher François Marin played by François Bégaudeau.who wrote the book based on his experience. It’s a kind of updated To Sir with Love but without the heroic treacle and no Sidney Poitier.

There a deal of rather thorny French grammar to be taught but the drama emerges not from the imperfect subjunctive but from the interactions – the evolving story of the lives in that one room. It has some the best qualities of a documentary although the young actors are actually students from a nearby school in the 20th arrondissement. They were recruited by the filmmaker Laurent Cantet to take part in acting workshops and their work led to their roles in the film.

Certain characters begin to stand out as they argue with their teacher, challenge him (and his assumptions) and squabble with each other. There’s Wei who is brilliant in spite of his indifferent French and whose mother may be deported to China as an illegal immigrant. There’s Khoumba – who shows that saving face at all costs  is the most important thing. And Carl from the Caribbean, expelled from another school and who argues football with Souleymane from Mali, the kid who tilts his chair in the back row. There’s Arthur fiercely protective of his Goth identity and Esmerelda who pounces on the teacher’s every misstep and, rather improbably, asserts herself by quoting Plato.

We get to know these kids and their teacher He is no saint (respect for multiculturalism does not extend to Austria it seems) and he is sarcastic and can be quite the hector. Nevertheless we see his good intentions and his struggles and feel for the characters as they tangle together.

We see a little of the family life of the students at conference and crisis time. The school has a regular collective facuty review of student progress monitored by student representatives – a practice that leads in this case to trouble.

The school – as depicted in the film – also appears to have no appreciation of teaching styles and learning differences so far as we can tell. This is M.Marin’s class: he does the talking (or tries to) and the students sit in rows. But then – this is entertainment not  professional development. (That said – many scenes would provide great starting points for discussion.)

We see a little of the faculty room and school politics. We have a glimpse of technology and how it liberates at least one learner And a real moment of recognition – the mention of that most important matter – the faculty coffee machine.

The Cannes Film Festival awarded The Class the Palme d’Or.

Here is the trailer:

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