To Sir, Sans Love

To Sir, Sans Love

Ever since the ultra-slow moment of lunatic ecstasy took shape in Zero for Conduct (1933), schools in cinema have always been about kids. Everything revolves around them, for good or otherwise. They have been the be all and end all through the decades no matter how complex the scripts got. Even when the films, such as To Sir, With Love (1967), had the teachers as the focal point, the protagonists were always hinged to the acts and moves of the students. Or they turned the table around completely. Some of these films would have this altruistic, uncanny, omniscient and awe-inspiring teachers where the student community is a monolithic entity that served merely as the outlet to emotions. Palm D’Or winner Entre Les Murs (The Class, 2008) (perhaps Half Nelson (2006) too, which I have not seen) breaks all these rules and formulae in a naturalistic and unforced fashion.

The Class is a film where multiculturalism is written right on the face. It does not take the issue as a matter-of-fact as the other films of the year do, but cleverly, builds a premise that enables it to confront it straight on. It does not have a script that tries to be subtle and hence be cheeky enough to implant a message or two. That doesn’t mean The Class does not have a message. It sure does and in loads. It just doesn’t try to hide it. In fact, it attempts to highlight the same. Mr. Cantet avoids the temptation of placing the kids at the edge of the frame and takes them head on (and in focus) as individuals and not as outcasts or marginal. The diversity in Entre Les Murs is not restricted to just nationality or ethnicity, In fact, it goes even beyond the disparities of language, sexual orientation and religious customs, into regions of personal likes and dislikes. To the point where the term ‘diversity loses meaning and it all boils down to individuals, who are like human islands with personalized cultural traits.

The Class presents us two worlds – one each of the students and the teachers – that exist on their own without apparent causality. These are truly independent worlds whose inhabitants have their own problems to attend to, their own private jokes and their own reasons for celebrations. The teachers are assigned a big responsibility of handling multicultural students and that too, in a not-so-reputed school. The teachers have not only to handle this responsibility carefully, but the task of gaining an identity as a teacher in spite of the school. François’ (François Bégaudeau , also the author of the book on which the film is based) personal problems only add to the complication. So do the students, who seem confused about where they belong or who they are. And the class forms the playground for both parties to work within the system and find a place and name of their own.

I believe The Class is a film that has to be watched exactly twice. It is like that stretch of time where you have just quarreled with your friend and you are recollecting what exactly went wrong, only to discover that nothing did. Both the sides and their arguments seem correct upon objective evaluation and the mess seems just like the result of a moment of misplaced subjectivity. This problem arises because the story of The Class is filtered through a highly flawed protagonist. He may psychologically be meaning good, but what his actions at the end of it seem rash and unfitting. So are the acts and intentions of the troublesome Souleymane (Franck Keita). I’m sure that we would have had a symmetrically placed opinion had the tale been told through the eyes of Souleymane. This is precisely the reason I say the movie should be watched twice – in order to understand the two sides instead of passing judgments on them or taking a complacent stand.

The Class works even on a very basic level as it explores the explosive atmosphere between the teacher and the students in the class. This is a very tricky relationship indeed. The teacher tries to cut some slack in order to encourage interaction, ease up his job and ultimately gain reputation among the students. The students being the majority, on the other hand, try to display their wit or skill and get a upper hand in this cat and mouse game. But all this is laid on the foundation of a solid principle. That the adult is always the boss. The kids in Entre Les Murs realize that and try hard to keep themselves in control whenever they can. François too tries not to overstress the principle and to listen to the children as responsible individuals. But a small perceived disturbance, lands to shatter the balance and to provide the dramatic momentum to the film. Funny that this extremely talkative film is the successor of an exceedingly quiet one at Cannes.

The other day, I saw an orphaned girl speaking on TV after she had been admitted to a institution for children. She was speaking in Hindi and was using masculine forms of speech throughout. One could instantly make out the circumstances and environment in which she spent the previous years of her life. The importance of language is a vastly underestimated one and the extinction of languages is as critical as any other issue. The Class is a very talkative film as I said but it is these very words that support its premise. The world seems to have changed so much that the demarcations between the student and the teacher become blurred. They learn French grammar and vocabulary from François. They learn words like “Austrian” and “Argentine” which seems to be much sought after. François learns terms like “honky” and what not from the kids. It doesn’t look like degradation of culture, but rather as the evolution of an alternate culture that has much to teach as the existing one does. A lot of dialectical dialog in the film has gone over my head and understanding that perhaps would help one to see the socio-cultural patterns that are established during the conversations.

There is obviously a pitfall in a situation where a director intends to make broader comments using seemingly minor elements of the film, in this case – the children. One cannot make them too simplistic that it falls laughably flat nor too elaborate such that the elements themselves lose identity (of course, there are exceptions where the intention is not to preserve the elements but to map them completely). Kiarostami’s phenomenal film Homework (1989) is perhaps the bible for directors who want to make film that refuses to compromise on any level. Like Homework, but far less perfect, The Class elicits social, cultural and political structures of the society present outside the school through the interaction and behaviour of the students.

Although there are some forced moments here and there in the film, The Class for a large part is an unpolished film. It does not provide us easy questions or comfortable answers. It carefully avoids all clichés of conventional movies that earnestly move towards a self-congratulatory climax. At the end of The Class, one might be expecting François to pin up the self-portrait of the expelled Souleymane or at least provide a symbolic close to it. No, Mr. Cantel avoids that. Nor does he sweeten anything when the hitherto quiet student insists that she has not learnt anything the whole year. Mr. Cantet is perhaps asking us to see them as they are. Some people just can’t be brought into the clockwork of the system and the system in turn should not pat itself for bringing about the change.

“The System” here may not just denote an educational institution but a larger entity that Mr. Cantet has miniaturized into the four walls of a classroom (Interestingly, “Entre Les Murs” translates to “Between the Walls”). In what may be a metaphor for France itself, Mr. Cantet uses the class to make a commentary on the authoritative mentality of the establishment that tries to impose its values upon its variegated set of inhabitants. Those who don’t conform to the standards set by the system are either marked or expelled. The students feel what the school teaches is irrelevant and outdated, the school feels the what students know is useless and fake. As the whole class – the teacher and the students – vacate the room for winter break, we realize that this ordinary room, which could well have been a hospital, a post office or a shop, was given meaning only because of the presence of the system and its constituents – like our earth that is divided by man-made boundaries with its inhabitants having to adhere to a synthetic feeling called patriotism.