Sunday, April 19, 2009
On "The Class (Entre les Murs)"
So - you've got this white teacher, right? And he's teaching at an urban school with a diverse population of students. A lot of these students come from poverty and rough backgrounds, a number of them immigrants. He's teaching Language Arts, so they end up doing a self-portrait about themselves. Things are learned.
We've most definitely heard this story before, right? We've seen this movie - "Freedom Writers," "Dangerous Minds" (they're always Language Arts teachers, no?). White savior comes in and - in their first year of teaching - they "save" all these kids of color who aren't capable of saving themselves. We've seen it.
But what we have not seen is "The Class." It's set up so much like these other films, but it's so very different. The first "why"? Probably because it's not an American film. It's French. When Mr. Marin (the teacher in the film) teaches Language Arts, it's called "French." And when François Bégaudeau (the actor and writer and once-teacher) wrote this screenplay, he had no intention of following the b.s. American formula - and in so doing he created something so incredibly original simply because it was real.
This is not a movie for good-feelings. It won't uplift you in the end. There are no answered questions or pat morality tales. The movie ends as murky and frustrating and awkward as it begins - and that is its brilliance. Because - in that - it perfectly mirrors the actual teaching profession.
The movie starts on the first day of school with Mr. Marin (in his fourth year of teaching) and ends on the last day. There is not a single scene played out outside the walls of the school (hence the French name, "Entre les Murs," which means, "Between the Walls"). It's semi-documentary style let's us see exactly what the students and teachers see: a class full of kids from a variety of backgrounds, sometimes learning, often challenging. We get hints of what's going on in their lives, but we do not have the luxury of trite peeks into their home-lives, we are left only with hints - just as in real life.
And the teacher? We see him in staff meetings, as the teachers bicker with each other over how to "punish" the kids effectively. We watch one teacher melt down in frustration in the staff break room. We see Mr. Marin leave late at night, fatigued and worn-down. And then we see the next day of class. Even for Mr. Marin, there is no home-life, no romantic interest down the hall. Nothing to show us his outside world that the students wouldn't know about.
And that's the beauty. It perfectly captures the classroom experience. This strange world where people who don't know each other outside of a very artificial setting share their lives with looks, and shouts, and closing down. People who would never connect in the outside world, who don't understand each other's cultures or perspectives. Sometimes, beautiful things happen. Sometimes, tragedy. Both sides learn from each other (arguably, more so the teacher from the students in these types of situations than the other way around). Nobody leaves fully satisfied.
Mr. Marin screws up. A lot. But he also has strong moments. He cares, but he doesn't understand (even four years in - just like most teachers). He stereotypes his students. He picks on some of them (perhaps unknowingly - perhaps not). He tries his damnedest to do his job under ridiculous circumstances. And the kids? The same. They try. They question. They don't understand, either.
Finally, a film about teaching that doesn't try to glorify. That brings up all the questions and gives no answers. There is no "saving" kids. Teachers come from a different world and judge without understanding - and it frustrates everybody involved. There is so much opposition (from the top on down), that it's amazing that anything positive happens. It only makes sense that a movie like this could only have been written by - and acted by - a former teacher. And I don't know the background behind the actors that play the students - but they are absolutely brilliant. It seemed so real, even though I knew it wasn't a documentary, I often questioned that fact.
This movie is painful on a lot of levels. It brings up issues of class, and race, and sexism without carefully tying off any loose ends. It's raw. And that rawness is what makes it so worth seeing. You want to get a real glimpse into the world of public-school teaching in America? Watch this French film.
And that's the only problem with the movie. That people who do not know any better will watch this and take it as just that: a French film. Allowing the fact of its origin to keep them from understanding its absolute truth to an American education system. I can already imagine all those Freedom-Fry lovin' patriots dismissing the veracity of this film because - Americans wouldn't do that. Trying to think that the system and mentality is different (when it is - at least from what I saw in this film - exactly the same).
And then they'll go back to watching "Dangerous Minds" and think about teaching Language Arts.
When they should be taking this lesson - think twice about teaching. You're probably not going to be good at it. Because, in this system, so few people are.*
* I'll be following up on that statement in a post about "the Myth of Good Teaching" soon.