Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Class

Dir. Laurent Cartet

Middle school is hell on Earth. Any and all quiet respect for authority at that age (12-14) is thrown out the window. As a teacher, it is considered an achievement to get your class under control, never mind transmitting any knowledge. Where elementary school lays the foundation for a person's conception of education and high school develops on top of it a rickety framework of hyper-specific and compartmentalized spheres, middle school always seems to just be a big push out the door. Standards of behavior and learning are dismantled and reassembled into something between prison and playground. The years in middle school are some of the most confusing years of all, and not just for students. The Class, a 2008 French film by Laurent Cantet and recipient of the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, provides a stunning introspection on the commitments and contradictions of being an educator, as well as the duties and obligations inherent in the occupation. Culled from the personal experiences of an inner city Parisian teacher, Francois Begaudeau who also plays the film's protagonist, The Class is a beautiful, and at times uncomfortable, piece of honest-to-god filmmaking. Its clarity of vision, lack of pretension, and complete certitude allow, and in fact encourage, the film to evolve past being a simple conceptualization and reproduction of the uncertainties and trepidations of scholastics into a commentary on the oft-ignored dilemmas of modern education.

In theory the film presents a near impossible task: the development of a classroom of characters into a classroom of students: obnoxious, insular, obtuse but most of all believable. The film centers around Mr. Marin's (Begaudeau) eclectic class of middle school aged students, who range from Chinese, video game loving Wey to Malian, disciplinary nightmare Souleymane. The film begins formlessly enough, a tasteful choice on Cantet's part, allowing the viewer to become acquainted with, in all likelihood, an unfamiliar setting. The inner city and multi-national aspect of the film took some getting used to, not to mention the sheer intensity of the middle school setting with its blurring dialogs and extreme divides between hormonally engaged students and caffeine affixed, sometimes utterly disenfranchised teachers. The film presents its own themes literally, using questions posed by students and debates between teachers to elaborate on what is already being presented. Take a question by one student: What does condescension mean? As a maturing young adult its pretty clear how blatantly patronizing Mr. Marin is towards his students, knowing that they have yet to fully develop a sensitivity to his subtle jeers. They are not completely unaware though, as they occasionally chastise him for making fun of them or even insulting them, which they ironically find unjust. The question that develops out of this slightly detached introduction is that of who deserves what kind of treatment.

There is an emphatic conviction in youth that adults are infallible, unquestionable, and amoral. Their word is law. However, by the time a child hits the age of 13 that belief is turned on its head, and becomes instead the recalcitrance of the pre-teen years in which all authority can and must be questioned, to degrees which are often absurd. Development at this stage is a painful process, and in The Class the figurehead of such a crisis is Souleymane, who, after stepping in to defend two female students who Mr. Marin has just accused of “acting like skanks”, disavows all points of classroom law, pushing and shoving his way out the door after accidentally cutting open the eyebrow of a fellow problem student, Khoumba. The incident, which is the film's tense climax, results in Souleymane's expulsion from the school. All the while, and in fact since the film began, an ideological war is being waged between the teachers on how to best govern the school, which they naturally approach rather bookishly. These conversations, perfectly juxtaposed with the scenes in the classroom in which Marin's thoughts on education are put into profound praxis, edify the films' self-awareness and function as a more direct means of calling into question long since defunct prerogatives of teachers and the means by which they control education. In America, in the shadow of George W. Bush's “No Child Left Behind” doctrine, these scenes take on a quality of pain by self-realization. Many of us were educated, publicly and privately, under similar statues, and seeing them presented here in a confused frenzy of idealizations and total hopeless disillusion and the bitter conclusion that nothing is working, calls into question how any of us ever made it past the 8th grade. Better still it points to our own depressingly low level of education, with so many college students possessing only elementary grasps on grammar and syntax, never mind literature and politics.

All things considered, what makes The Class remarkable is not its criticism of educators, who have one of the most difficult jobs imaginable, but rather its acceptance of youth culture. It asks the classic insolent question “When are we ever going to use this?” and does so eloquently and with near perfect verisimilitude. It embraces the student perspective and integrates it into its final evaluation. That evaluation is not exact. It is not a precise suggestion. It is more a warm embrace of the possibilities of evolving educational standards and the part that children, who are the whole impetus of education, must play in that process. The Class reads like a textbook that might have a title like “How to Teach and Learn”. Its point is articulate and timely and owes its precision to an educator who saw himself not as a demigod, but as a human-being attempting to transmit the gift of knowledge to a group of young people who weren't sure that they needed or wanted it. It is a serious achievement in academic assessment, as well as an exquisite piece of cinema.

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