Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Class (Entre Les Murs)














THE CLASS (Entre Les Murs)             A-                   
aka:  Between the Walls
France  (128 mi)  2008  ‘Scope  d:  Laurent Cantet

Hardly sugar coated, but definitely troubling, as many viewers will be aghast that the “system” doesn’t work any better, this is a self-portrait of a flawed inner city school system inside Paris, France, given a healthy dose of authenticity when one of the co-writers, François Bégaudeau, wrote the book on which the film is based and is also the featured junior high school teacher in the film, giving it a near documentary portrait of the goings on inside his classroom as well as a look behind the scenes at his school.  Outside of an opening shot where the teacher (François) grabs a cup of coffee, the entire film takes place “between the walls” (translated French title) on the school grounds.  In general, most of the students are dark-skinned with African or Arabic roots with ethnic backgrounds from former French colonies, specifically North and West Africa as well as French-speaking Caribbean countries, while nearly the entire teaching and administrative staff, who introduce themselves in an opening orientation meeting, are white.  So just looking at this scenario, one sees we’re on a collision course just waiting for accidents to happen.  While François is a committed white educator with four years of experience teaching French, his class remains a cry of rebellion, as students are free to interrupt or interject their thoughts whenever they please, as if it is a democracy.  Initially he sets a standard of raising one’s hand but then never follows this criteria for the rest of the film.  What’s curiously unique about this classroom is that it’s as much about the students as it is the teacher, where in a somewhat provocative gesture, he calls upon students to voice their views, even if they express a disinterest, which results in open rebellion and arguments, occasionally insults, where the time spent is hurling personal insults and challenges to one another, sometimes with name-calling and disruptive classroom laughter.  What begins as an attempt to utilize teaching methods turns into something different altogether, as few students do the homework assignments or express any interest in what he’s teaching, as evidenced here:  Multiculturalism in France: short video clip from "The Class" YouTube (2:36).

Unfortunately, part of the problem is the teaching method itself, as a classroom of 13 or 14-year old kids is not a democracy where every student openly engages one another using the Socratic method of open dialogue, instead each seeks their own way to attain attention, breaking down any system of authority through disruption.  François pleads his case, but usually makes challenging, personal remarks to each student that only lead to defensive personal responses, where they go back and forth attacking one another, basically throwing any lesson plan, and these kid’s futures, out the window.  François is very good at exposing problems, but his interrogation techniques rarely solve any of them.  For instance, when there are classroom breakdowns, it’s simply a free for all instead of an accompanying follow up on what went wrong, where the teacher establishes guidelines for what is appropriate and what is not, where he actually takes the time to implement a classroom structure.  Instead he gives up on this almost immediately, as he’s overwhelmed by the student’s negativity, believing nothing he’s teaching them is relevant in their lives.  Well his challenge is to make it relevant.  There are African writers, or Caribbean Pulitzer prize winners they could study, also each of these students has extended families that could be encouraged to bring in personalized information like food, clothing, stories, cultural dances or customs, sports figures, photographs, where they could place colorful pictures on the wall, making everyone all part of a true learning experience.  But rather than incorporate what’s actually meaningful to this group of students, their needs are all but ignored, exacerbated by the blatantly racist French policy to ignore all cultural ethnicities in the name of one supposedly united France, a policy that in a classroom like this makes little sense, as their birthplaces themselves could serve as a geography lesson.      

François fails to get through to two of his strongest classroom personalities, Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) and Souleymane (Franck Keita), both black, each of whom commands the respect of their fellow classmates.  Khoumba, a bright, opinionated girl refuses to read out loud when called upon, believing she’s being picked on, which obviously irks the teacher who tries to find out what’s wrong after class, seen here:  The Class - Clip  YouTube (3:21), but she’s unable to say what the matter is and sarcastically makes things difficult for him, creating a dramatic scene in front of others.  But then she writes a terrific essay on “Respect,” saying she doesn’t feel respected by him, claiming she will no longer even look him in the eye, as she doesn’t wish to give him the wrong impression.  More importantly, she doesn’t place it on his desk, but in his locker, which couldn’t be more personal.  This is a student crying out for a humane response, for guidance, but he never gives her what she is obviously looking for and what she deserves.  Even worse, Souleymane is a well-liked, good looking but undereducated kid from Mali, where French is obviously his second language, as he has problems reading, writing, and acting out, as he has difficulties communicating with many of the teachers, so he remains sullen much of the time, or he overreacts, getting into some of the worst and most offensive arguments with his fellow students.  But this is the Alpha male, the kid who’s obviously smart, but his brazen outspokenness is wasted on street cred hailing insults and shouting others down.  Again, this is a student crying out for a personal tutor and a different set of priorities.  At the parent/teacher conferences, we never see the father and we learn that the mother can’t speak French, so all they know is what Souleymane tells themthat everything is just fine.  Rather than attempt to resolve this conflict of communication, as the family deserves to know early on that there are problems in the classroom, the teacher, and the institution itself, is remarkably silent.  So it comes as a surprise to his mother when a short time later Souleymane is facing charges of expulsion, where her impassioned pleas in Arabic (with no translator present except Souleymane) fall on deaf ears.

The teachers themselves have group discussions about how to respond to individual behavior problems, like Souleymane, even as they are about to discuss his possible expulsion, but the views are usually washing their hands of any responsibility, all but disregarding his side of the story, implementing punishment whenever possible.  The group also discusses the merits of each student in the presence of student reps, where they all share their views before deciding upon grades and what they mutually decide are the appropriate educational remarks, a system that is ultimately undermined by the student reps who tell all the students what grades they’re going to get ahead of time and what the teachers had to say about them.  Apparently the subject of confidentiality was never raised before, as this systematic approach is guaranteed to align the students against the teachers, mostly through old fashioned concepts like rumor and heresay, all taken out of context, but highly effective.  In fact, this seems to be the metaphor for failure, that spreading rumors behind people’s backs is a much more effective means of communicating than anything the educational system offers.  Speaking personally, that would make my lesson plan the very next school day, how rumors spread like a disease, not based on facts or any answerable truth, but based on the quickest and deadliest means of bringing harm to someone.  What’s clear here is that the school isn’t budging an inch to learn how to help anyone other than those that already have the tools to help themselves, as the system instead is designed to blame and punish those students who express difficulties.  Not one of these kids was lost to the system prior to the school year, as they’re still young and impressionable, but by the end, that’s another story.  Unlike American films that would spend a great deal of effort searching for answers, the provocative nature of this film is instead asking all the right questions. 

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