Saturday, March 28, 2009

"The Class" is worth the work.

"The Class" (originally titled "Between the Walls" in French) is far and away the best and most hard-hitting film I've ever seen about teaching. It's also a profound exploration of the challenges of multi-culturalism. Though filmed in France, it could hardly be more relevant to the American experience. It's a must-see for educators and for anyone who cares about bridging the cultural gulfs that divide us in America.

As you might have begun to expect from that description, this film is not light nor is it exactly entertaining, though it is never less than engaging. My first viewing felt like hard work; I felt a bit wrung out at the end. It is really like spending two hours right in the thick of the most challenging teaching job imaginable. But unlike typical Hollywood fare like "Freedom Writers," and "Dangerous Minds"--also about relatively affluent white teachers trying to reach angry, at-risk, inner-city kids from poor and immigrant families--this film does not take sides, nor does it attempt to explain the kids' anger, nor does it depict a teacher who, alone among his checked-out colleagues, finds the hope and vision to connect with his students. Instead of easing the tension that drives the conflicts in this junior high French class, the film examines that tension and invites you to live in it for awhile. The kids' behavior and antagonism toward their teacher is not excused or softened, and the hard-working teacher is not exactly a hero, nor are his efforts particularly richly rewarded. He can't ever be sure when and if he is getting through to his students, and if he is it seems almost by accident.
The film stars Francois Bergaudeau, himself a teacher and author of a book that inspired the film, as Mr. Marin, a teacher in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Paris. The book documents one school year, with no real plot; the film takes a similar approach, allowing you to just live with the class. The effect is appropriately unsettling; you wonder what will happen, if the film (the class) is going anywhere in particular. In that way, it's a wonderful approximation of the experience of Mr. Marin and his students, as he struggles to persuade them that there is some value in learning to conjugate verbs, use the imperfect indicative, and speak French in a manner that they are convinced no one actually does. How do you tell what is for writing and what is for speaking? a student asks, accepting for the moment Marin's argument that there is a need to learn written French. Use intuition, he explains. But what's intuition? And what if you don't have it?

The director and Bergaudeau started with a loose script and then created the film over a year of improvising with the kids themselves, who developed the characters from composites of themselves and the kids described in Bergaudeau's book. Many of the exchanges depicted arose from this process of improvision, in their attempts to express their world to him. Most of the action takes place in the classroom, with one camera trained on Mr. Marin, one on the student(s) currently at the center of the dialogue or action, and one recording other reactions. It is as though you are there, even when you may not want to be.
Mr. Marin's teaching style is confrontational; you see the huge quantity of energy he expends navigating a line that involves pushing and engaging his students, working with what they throw at him, but not getting drawn in by their attempts to trap or anger him. He's fairly successful at it, and is pretty good at getting them talking, but he also misses them a lot. Watch for one exchange in which a Chinese student, Wei, new to France, notes that other students don't feel enough "shame." Mr. Marin, thinking Wei has chosen the wrong word, turns the discussion to what people do feel shame about--and it turns into a cacophony of different ideas about shame that don't connect and that it is clear Mr. Marin doesn't understand. Often what they are trying to say is really beyond his ability to grasp and their ability to express; the gulf of culture and language and class seems impossibly wide. We see their distrust of him, a distrust they nurture, which causes them to miss or discount his attempts to reach them, but also a distrust that is in some ways quite well-founded. There often is a kind of condescension in Marin's responses to their challenges, though one wonders if it is in some ways like the psychological callouses a surgeon needs in order to cut into the human body on a regular basis.
The teachers, for their part, struggle to bring some order to the chaos, reaching for rituals like requiring students to stand when an adult enters the room to reinforce a sense of decorum. They struggle aloud with each other (though never in front of the students) over how to mete out discipline, debating the merits of point systems and varying degrees of flexibility in applying the rules. Mr. Marin is conscientious, usually arguing for a flexible approach--so it is particularly frustrating when his students pounce on any evidence that he is insulting or discounting them. They have him pegged as an oppressor--the empired striking back--but their assessment of him is not entirely fair. It's tough to watch how quickly they unite in attempting to get him into trouble when he finally takes the bait and says something he shouldn't.

The misunderstandings here run deep. In addition to the usual adult-vs.-adolescent disconnects, here you have the additional layer of cultural difference complicating matters. I came away with such a profound sense that the education system as it has been set up is woefully ill-equipped to provide for these kids, who already resent being pre-judged and cast-off by a culture that has no use for them, yet resist identifying themselves as part of it, calling themselves Malian or Carribbean rather than French--or, as one Arab student says, "I'm French, but I'm not proud of it." The rules and efforts to control them don't really work--as one student says when Mr. Marin forces her to apologize for a classroom affront, "I didn't really mean it"--and yet how to reach these kids with classes this size and differences this profound? Even when it's clear that some learning is taking place in the midst of it all, it's not necessarily what these kids need or what Mr. Marin hopes for. As Richard Schickel puts it in Time magazine, "the educational machinery * * * clank[s] onward, in the largest sense indifferent to the needs of its charges, the best efforts of its functionaries."

In the end, this wonderful film (which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes) is not only a rich meditation on the challenges of teaching in a broken educational system but also a master class on cultural difference. Here's what happens when one's best intentions are tested by the real world, "when the underprivileged don't show gratitude the way they do on TV shows" and where teaching is "moment to moment, an endless series of negotiations that hang on intangibles--on imagination and empathy and the struggle to stay centered." (David Edelstein, New York Magazine) I laughed to myself thinking how diversity education is considered a "soft" subject; bringing real understanding into the arena in which we now find ourselves is nothing if not hard. Right now most majority culture people can avoid these front lines, but not for long. Time to listen, and struggle. (In French; rated PG-13 for language; nominated for an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2008)

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