Monday, March 9, 2009

The Class


So I went to see The Class on Saturday. It's a movie that sticks with you after you've seen it. I've been running a number of scenes back over in my mind for the last two days. It's certainly one of the most honest movies I've seen in a long time. It's about one classroom and one teacher's attempt to create a community of discourse with this one very particular group of students. It's very true to life in that way; no two groups of students are the same. Add a student, take away a student, and that changes everything as well.

It's true to life in other ways as well. Nothing about the teacher, the students, the school, or the administration is romanticized. It's about a group of people trying to get along and to learn something from one another, none of whom really have the skills to pull it off. I don't think I've ever seen a film about education which has so many "teachable moments" on display. What's interesting is that in a few of those moments, the teacher, Francois Marin (played by Francois B├ęgaudeau in a role based on his own experiences as a middle school teacher) manages to find an adequate response, but very often, and very often at the most significant moments, he fails to come through. In fact, I'd say that the film is ultimately about the many ways in which, despite our good intentions, we fail each other every day. It's also about class in the other sense of the word, the hierarchies of authority both inside of the school and in society at large. The question of "Who gets to decide?" is everywhere. Who gets to decide what we talk about in class? Who gets to decide what language is appropriate? Who gets to decide what the consequences are when a student behaves inappropriately? Who gets to decide what happens when a teacher does?

The narrative arc of the film leads toward a defining moment in which one of the students, a charismatic but recalcitrant student named Souleymane, who guards his private life with a formidable array of attitudinal and verbal weapons, winds up, in a scene that in retrospect seems both accidental and thoroughly predictable, putting to the test the entire system and the assumptions upon which it is based.

It's a very good film. I found myself wondering what part of it was documentary and what part of it was made up. One review I read suggested that the movie was not actually scripted but was more or less blocked out by the director and then improvised by the actors. It certainly has a spontaneity about it, and the ring of truth.

1 comment:

Jennifer Gavin said...

This is a film that definitely sticks with the viewer. One of my favorite scenes is when M. Marin is approached by a history teacher who wants him to align his literature with his own world history curriculum, insisting that the texts will be accessible to students of all reading levels. When M. Marin is polite about declining, we can feel the judgment oozing from the history teacher ("That cynical teacher doesn't care and doesn't want to try something innovative.").

In the same way that Souleymane is an emblem of the system's failure, the student who is called a skank haunts M. Marin and reminds him of his own failures in the classroom. On the last day of class, he is still surprised to learn that she is beyond what he has conceived her to be ("The Republic, yes. It's not a skank book."). We feel it acutely. As teachers, we are always reflecting and thinking about what we could have done differently. Sometimes, lessons are hard to reverse.