The Class (2008) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Class (2008)

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ANDREW LIKEThe best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie, so the old maxim goes.  To this date, I have not seen a film that really dealt with the complexities of a classroom in such a way that would alter anyone's perception of what it is like to teach.  Certain films have come close - Wonderboys is great for life on a college campus and Stand and Deliver for an unconventional teachers take on modern learning.  But those are more concerned with either the rhythm of campus life or making a broad statement about society.  No film has the bravery to confront the realities of the teaching experience like The Class.

This film should be required viewing to anyone who wants to be a teacher.  The realities of the day to day struggles with students, parents and the other staff members are so perfectly realized that it's difficult to imagine any other way that they could be portrayed.  In it's time frame the film deals with sexuality, race, social class, inellect, and a myriad of other topics that are left by the wayside in any other movie that pretends to be about the reality of the teacher.

The Class covers a year in the life of a high school teacher named Francois Marin (played by Francois Begaudeau).  He tries to teach the children literature and poetry that has very little use in their lives and Francois seems disinterested in providing a way for it to matter.  The students understand this, and challenge him at every turn.  They question his motives, his techniques, why he is using names typically associated with white male Americans in his sample sentences (strange for a poverty district of France), and what he is attempting to teach at all.  They, and we, wonder if he is really making any sort of difference by using the cirriculum that he is and if he really understands how intelligent they are.

He doesn't, and they prove it time and time again by harassing him and thwarting real progress with the class.  They are reading beyond a level that he is prepared for and doesn't bother assigning them material that may make them challenge the world around them.  He isn't made to bear the full blame for this.  The school system encourages simpler solutions while his fellow teachers bemoan their fate as hapless schoolteachers while doing nothing to change the system.  He's a cog only partly aware of the machinery that wears him down, and is doomed to producing similar cogs through his class.

As a pedagological study The Class is in a league of it's own.  Francois' class is one that would benefit from a firmer hand and guided by someone that is less liberal than himself.  He gets so caught up in defending the material he is trying to teach that he is not able to contextualize it for his class.  As a result they debate with him endlessly to no real effect.  Strange that I would side with a more conservative teaching style for once, but in this case it is needed for the kids to really succeed in the world.

There are developments that test the teachers own prejudices.  But I'm less interested in the machinations of the plot than what this film has to say about teaching the world over.  Much like in America, race issues are broken down into a white/black binary without thinking of what it is doing to the other members of the class.  The teachers own sexist comments towards some of the more intelligent female students of the class are almost completetly waved away by the system while the deliberate pandering to their own racist tendencies goes unnoticed.  The film suggests that the school system analyzed does little to stem this and tends to perpetuate that kind of thinking.  My own student teaching experiences in Chicago were much the same, and a lot of the other teachers there completely disgusted me even if they thought they were 'liberal' in their viewpoints.

What amazed me most is how much we get to know each of the kids without really spending too much time with them individually.  The director, Laurent Cantet, worked with all of the cast members for about a year looking to perfect the interplay between class and teacher without any of the drama feeling forced.  He watches each scene unfold with a documentary-styled camera that is heavy on capturing each students essence without feeling awkward.  All of this is done without a soundtrack, opting instead to capture the sounds and rhythms of daily school life.

The actor that plays Francois is the real Francoi Begaudeau whose memoirs formed the basis of the film.  All of the students are so convincing as members of his classroom that I was tempted to label them all authentic students as well.  But they are actors and actresses, playing each role as a fantastic individual that society seems to have relegated to the dregs of their public school system.  Some of the students are more memorable than others (I really liked the intelligent and subversive Esmeralda), and what plot there is starts when Souleymane joins the school in the middle of the term.  He is smart, quiet, and has problems with his anger - of course understanding him will be next to impossible and he has to go.  This conflict begins to drag in other students and pose the questions that no other film has.

We've needed a movie like this for so long that it aches me to think that it's taken years to come through.  It doesn't give the teacher a sense of divine privelage above the students, nor does it give those students the leeway to behave as unfortunate martyrs.  There are mistakes made on both side that a defunct educational system has made possible and leaves children learning nothing or being rejected outright by the system.

Our schools do not adequately prepare teachers for the kinds of students, or other teachers, that those coming out of college need to work with.  What's slightly comforting and yet terrifying is that it's the same in France and other "developed" countries.  The Class isn't a nightmare version of their  educational system and it always plays fair with the surroundings.  What's the course for change?  The Class isn't saying.   It won't tell you how to feel, just report honestly about what happens when good intentions go sour and the kids smell the waste before the teacher does.

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The Class (2008)

Directed by Laurent Cantet.
Written by Laurent Cantet, Robin Campillo, and Francois Begaudeau.
Starring Francois Begaudeau, Esmeralda Ouertani, and Franck Keita.

Posted by Andrew

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