The story behind The Class is as interesting as what you see on the screen. It’s based on a best-selling autobiographical French novel, Entre Les Murs, written by former Parisian school teacher François Bégaudeau, who plays a version of himself in the movie. Laurent Cantent is the director of several powerful French films including Vers Le Sud (three French women go to Haiti in search of sex and discover more) and Emploi du Temps, the most unsettling film I ever saw about the hell of being unemployed. For The Class, Cantent found teenage actors throughout Paris and worked with them for a year to develop characters that were both fictional and based on their own lives.
You can’t figure out if you want to slap these kids or hug them, they’re so darn real. There’s Souleymane (Franck Keita), the inarticulate powder keg from Mali who speaks more effectively with photos than with the French language. Wei (Wei Hang), the bright but isolated boy from China whose mother may be deported. Khoumba (Rachel Régulier), an obstinate troublemaker whose transformation over the summer mystifies her teacher. Rabah (Rabah Naït Oufella), the Muslim boy thinks it’s hopeless that non-Muslims can understand him. And Esmeralda (Esmeralda Quertani), the combative French-born gal whose gossip takes a terrible toll.
The Class is acutely, relentlessly honest, based on telling details that build with such an undertone of tension that by the time the movie ends, you are shocked how mesmerized you became. In short, it’s a gem of adolescent perspectives that every parent and teacher, regardless of nationality, should see. It’s not a documentary, though shot with three hand-held cameras, it looks like one. The Class was nominated for an Oscar and won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, the first time in 21 years that a French film took home the award.
François Marin (actor/novelist François Bégaudeau) has been teaching French language for a few years at one of Paris’ most ethnically mixed junior high schools. It’s a thankless task. His students are as bored with verb conjugations as students everywhere are and they can’t understand why they have to study proper French when it has nothing to do with their own lives. They speak street French and always will. Yet Marin struggles through, convinced he can make an impact on his students lives by developing their language skills.
His students are a motley global lot. The Caribbeans fight with the Africans. The Muslims ignore everyone. The white students act superior. The one China-born boy keeps to himself. While French may be the native language for a few, it’s the second language for most and many of the students speak a different language at home, often with parents who are illiterate in any language.
Marin tries to liven things up with assignments like writing self-portraits in which he wants to demonstrate how students can share their inner lives with one another through the use of language. It doesn’t dawn on him that some of his students live lives of such quiet despair that they don’t want to talk about themselves. The way these students express who they are is how they behave in class–as if they were still on the streets outside–constant bickering among themselves, endless confrontation with the teacher. They are more familiar with insults and snide remarks than with the analysis of poetry. Marin’s casual teaching style, which he hopes will create a bond with the students, backfires because his tongue becomes sharp and cutting. For those who think teachers should always be paragons of virtue, Marin’s style is shocking.
The Class is not Goodbye Mr. Chips or Dead Poets Society in which idealized teachers become life-long inspiration for their fortunate students. Marin is an enthusiastic, dedicated teacher, but he’s flawed. He makes mistakes in the heat of the moment–and, like in real life, mistakes made by adults can have tragic consequences on the young people in their charge. The deck is stacked by the bureaucracy of adult teachers against the students. Cultural and religious differences are given lip service but it’s really conformity that is encouraged.
The literal translation of the movie’s title is “Between the Walls.” An apt description because the movie takes place entirely within the drab structure of the school. Though we hunger for details of the home lives of the teachers and the students, because the movie makes us care about all the characters, we see and hear only what is revealed in the classroom. In this enclosed environment, (some might call it the prison-like atmosphere), the tensions that form in the classroom have nowhere to escape. As the year progresses, so do the hostilities and disappointments. There’s an overwhelming sense of betrayal. But who is to blame? Different philosophies of education? The worn-out teachers? The frustrated students? The system? Human nature?
In the last class, Marin asks his students what they learned during the past school year. A few of the students, with genuine enthusiasm, reveal that certain things in math, or science or music turned them on. Ah, success after all, we think, proud to see an example that our education tax dollars have been well spent.
After the other students file out, one African girl approaches Marin’s desk. We’ve never noticed her before, one of those students whose shyness makes them invisible to everyone, including their teachers. She very much wants to answer Marin’s question about what she learned in all the months of the school year.
“I didn’t learn anything,” she tells him.
Marin is aghast. “That can’t be true,” he heatedly replies, refusing to accept her statement. He expounds many words trying to convince her that she’s wrong. She patiently waits for him to finish.
“I didn’t learn anything,” she insists again.
He finally hears her. And so do we. And it feels you’ve been stabbed in the heart.