Film school: Liberty, equality and fraternity enter a multi-racial classroom in ‘The Class’

Laurent Cantet’s 2008 Cannes Film Festival winner is a complex study of difficult students and a teacher struggling to communicate with them.

Even eight years later, one is not late for The Class (2008). Directed by Laurent Cantet and based on an autobiographical novel by François Bégaudeau, who also plays a fictionalised version of himself in the film, The Class uses its unabashed honesty to smash the Walls within Walls (the translation of the original title Entre les Murs) of a suburban Paris school.

This is where we meet a class of multi-racial teenagers – distracted, opinionated and completely disregarding of any authority. They thoroughly enjoy the trying classroom atmosphere they create for their teacher, Francois Marin, who would have them learn French as well as acceptable conduct. Fortunately, but not heroically, Marin displays as much tenacity as his class.

This film does not have the comfortable feeling of the much-loved classic To Sir, with Love, in which the black teacher played by Sidney Poitier is strong and steady and the wild, white children are finally won over. Neither does The Class offer a one-off cult figure trouncing out the old and bouncing in with the new (Dead Poets Society). Both these films, as most others on the subject of schools, take us out of classrooms to examine homes and relationships, finally letting the tide turn one way or another. At the end of both films, there is a sense of inevitability, even if not complete satisfaction: What will be will be.

The Class keeps itself firmly within the school circuit. Challenges in the classroom, arguments in the staff room, an ongoing questioning of administrative policies, fault lines between teachers and parents…All this makes for the real, vigorous, sometimes volatile and exhausting dynamic in an institution struggling with the moot concept of equality for all.

Cantet has remarked that his film is “utopian about the possibilities this kind of setting offers, but pessimistic about the school system in general”.

The trailer of ‘The Class’.

It is both astonishing and refreshing to watch student representatives at a teachers meeting in which the academic and behavioural records of their classmates are being discussed. The class representatives – both girls – giggle and snigger as they listen to their teachers and principal, correcting anyone if they have their facts and figures wrong. So far, not too bad, but when Marin describes the troublesome African student from Mali, Souleymane, as “limited,” (which as a teacher, he has the right to), it is incendiary ammunition for the student representatives to carry back to the classroom. What follows leads to the most violent part of the film – Marin’s most regrettable utterance as he is baited (he calls the girls pétasses – sluts according to the subtitles) and Souleymane’s exit from the classroom, accidentally striking a girl with his satchel on the way. After a long history of disruptive behaviour, this time it is expulsion for Souleymane. Marin considers it a defeat for the institution that it is unable to give Souleymane more understanding.

Marin is keen on parity and giving students their space in his classes. He does not seem to mind their inattentive ways as long as they do not get loud about it. Stabbing keys on cell phones, fidgeting, nudging and distracting the others go unaddressed; students loll about in their seats and share their jokes while class is on. Marin is quite sure that his is the right approach – just as his students can lose their temper, so can he, and a one-time involuntary offensive remark from a teacher is negligible when compared to the repeated insults and disrespectful behaviour he has tolerated more often than not. Marin’s sense of equality means that he can carry on his diatribe even in the playground, metaphorically wrestling with his 14-year-old opponents, inviting more aggression all around.

At the same time, in the classroom, Marin must have the last word – whether in correcting a pronunciation (which a teacher is expected to) or when there is a battle of wits (which he could at least occasionally avoid). Khoumba’s feeling that Marin was “picking on” her is thus not an entirely unfounded accusation.

A clip from ‘The Class’.

In a truthful, though unfortunate, reflection of a teacher who registers only the obvious, Marin only engages with those who are vocal in class. A white girl’s hand goes unnoticed for several frames of the film, and a nameless black-skinned girl speaks for the first time when she comes up to Marin at the end of the year to tell him tearfully that she has not learnt anything. This is when we see Marin at his most inept – and the girl remains uncomforted.

All in all, Marin is a charismatic teacher – energetic, exacting and passionate. He tries to engage his pupils in discussion and activity and at times is almost possessive about them. The film does not whitewash the fact that African, Arab and Asian Parisians live in a country of racial roil. Marin’s class discuss the differences between white and non-white cultures matter-of-factly, at times surprising themselves as they learn to learn.

The Class is a relentlessly real watch, jolting in its impact and hurling questions in its wake.

Also see Bubla Basu’s essay on how Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh explores the concept of inclusive education.

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