2008 Denver International Film Festival
Movies about teachers inevitably become exercises in sentimentality and wistful nostalgia, as we are instructed to look back fondly on the kind old souls who inspired us to reach for the stars. From Goodbye, Mr. Chips to To Sir, With Love, education is seen as a transformative experience, complete with hard-won battles, painful (but life-affirming) lessons, and maybe even a wink of satisfaction as we head out the door for the last time. Even when the classroom is less romantic, as in modern fairy tales like Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds, the unmistakable message is that no kid is too hard to reach, and redemption is but a soaring monologue away.
Leave it to France, then, and director Laurent Cantet, to provide a long-overdue antidote to such mind-numbing tripe. The Class, a docudrama that rings so true as to remain indistinguishable from a Maysles Brothers piece, is infuriating, maddening, and thought-provoking all at once, but wholly without bias or the hint of an agenda. Because the film never leaves the school, and rarely ventures from Francois’ (Francois Begaudeau) modest classroom, there are precious few outside forces except what we can extract from the teachers and students themselves. Here, it is up to us.
Despite no overt message or axe-grinding, the class is, quite obviously, a microcosm of contemporary France and as such, an exploration of its current identity crisis. Francois’ class is mostly of immigrant stock, comprised mainly of West Africans, Chinese, and Moroccans, though this is not at all a heart-warming stew of togetherness. In fact, the kids are all, with rare exceptions, rude, insolent, and profoundly ignorant, and at no point do they warm up to the teacher’s prodding. There are no angels in this bunch, and when the year is done, most will confess to not learning a damn thing. And how could they? Francois spends most of his time answering insipid questions, breaking up fights, and trying desperately to remain in charge.
Only he long ago lost that battle. In this new world — though the issue is never pressed as a political point — it’s all about the erroneous notion that a melting pot never boils over. The Class isn’t pro- or anti-immigration per se, but simply matter-of-fact. Here’s the result of such a policy, unchecked and unquestioned, and no answers are forthcoming. America still hasn’t come to terms with its own diversity, but for old Europe, the fights appear to be just beginning. They’ve always been there, of course, given the continent’s brutal colonial past, but here and now, it’s within their borders at last (the French title, Entre les murs, literally translates as “between the walls”). Practice and theory rarely so neatly converge.
Thankfully, there are no “big tests” or “big games” to burden the story, nor do we go home with any of the cast. The teacher has no real biography to impart, and all we know of him is what we see in the classroom. The students are also what they appear to be, and even an essay-writing exercise, which in American hands could have turned into showdowns, tears, and the inevitable hugs, is simply another assignment that the little shits treat with disdain. A kid is expelled, another reveals a modest surprise, and teachers exchange heated words and frustrations during their weary meetings, but for all we see, the school will continue on in the same vein, and next year will spit out the same untested graduates.
The Class also asks generational questions, and whether or not we can ever secure the desired responsibility from kids who have been coddled and flattered from the cradle forward. These are young people given free reign in terms of self-expression, but at no point are they expected to deal with the ramifications of their behavior. Case in point: during one of many dead-end teacher roundtables, discipline is discussed, but the adults are so clueless as how to proceed that they all but admit there isn’t a single workable solution. Moreover, each kid expects learning to be so personalized that even the names involved in sentence diagramming must respect cultural boundaries. Surrender seems the only rational response.
No sane human being ever enters the teaching profession, of course, though one can’t help but admire the sorry bastards who give it a go. The Class is where we’ve been tending for decades, only now it’s too late to go back. It’s all about survival now, or avoiding lawsuits and self-righteous parents, with the actual work so secondary as to be invisible. We’re so lost, in fact, that success is measured not in graduation rates or test scores raised, but the number of classes completed without punches being thrown. The most crucial component of the immigration debate regarding education, then, is not whether integrated classrooms are a good thing (of course they are), but how they stand as a shining example of how sensitivity has replaced sense in our public institutions. We’ve covered all the bases and left the most important one unmanned.
We’re so concerned about respecting cultural factors and differences that we’ve stopped paying attention to whether or not education — broad, all-encompassing, and challenging, not simply pandering — is taking hold. Cantet’s film, then, is a cry in the darkness, but not in any one direction. Again, diversity is the key to any flourishing civilization, and no one can sensibly question its merits (looking in, Francois’ group is a beautiful mix) but what of a country not quite ready for its full implementation? Does a sovereign nation have the right to preserve a dominant culture and expect some degree of assimilation? And what does that even mean, anyway? Surely we’re all the product of a multitude of forces, right? Still, if the answers lie with the children, we may not like where we’re headed.