Directed by Laurent Cantet
Written by François Bégaudeau (novel and screenplay), Robin
Campillo and Laurent Cantet
Screening at FACT from 27th February 2009
As I watched this innovative Palme D'Or-winning film, it all came flooding
back. All the noise, conflict, and chaos of a secondary school classroom.
The standing for teachers, the ‘insolent’ banter, the wondering
what the hell the lesson had to do with our lives other than going towards
another qualification. Yes, The Class does an excellent job of recreating
the kind of school life I remember, and conjured a bizarre sense of horrific
nostalgia within me.
François Bégaudeau wrote the original 2006 autobiographical
novel, based on his experience as a somewhat liberal literature teacher
in an inner city, multi-ethnic Paris school, of the sort normally called
‘tough’ by politicians and the media. Director Laurent Cantet
– whose own parents were teachers – then cast Bégaudeau
to play the lead role in this film adaptation. The sense of realism is
rounded out by real life teachers playing teachers, real life students
playing students, and some excellently shot footage of often-improvised
workshops. In a sense, no-one is acting.
Bégaudeau’s character is caring and committed, but this
is not one of those silly films where that’s enough to gradually
coax reluctant children into being conscientious model pupils. Though
he genuinely wants to know and understand his charges, François
can’t do anything about the fact that he is meant to be an authority
figure, and attempts to subvert that authority must not be tolerated.
The defiance of two particularly insubordinate girls – Khoumba and
Esmerelda – plus Malian immigrant lad Souleymane, ultimately brings
about an explosive conflict that casts doubt on the futures of François
Though undoubtedly realistic as far as it goes, a weakness of The Class
is exposed at this point. Advocates of more traditionally authoritarian
teaching styles could easily seize on these scenes, and claim they prove
that by ‘sparing the rod’ – François has, as
the Bible has it – ‘spoiled the child’. This is unfortunate,
particularly since it can’t have been the author’s intention.
There is not enough questioning of why a child would apparently not want
to learn, or co-operate in class. There are few hints at the social problems
in the world beyond the school, and no exploration of the idea that the
teacher-pupil relationship itself may be limited. Teaching people who
don’t want to be taught is often described as an ‘impossible
job’. Could this literally be the case?
The system of schooling that is currently widespread around the globe
originated in the Britain of the eighteenth century, when the industrial
revolution took a strong hold. Industrialists quickly realised that they
needed the children of farm labourers to be taught factory discipline,
so they would become obedient and productive workers when the industrial
machine needed fresh blood. There have been many changes since then -
both in the economy and schooling - but the fundamental structure remains
the same. It doesn’t matter whether a student enjoys their lessons
– in some ways it is better if they don’t – so long
as they learn to obey the hierarchy of the system, and move from bell
to bell, whistle to whistle.
As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire noted in his study Pedagogy of the
Oppressed, which criticised the ‘banking concept’ of schooling,
"It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only
defended but actually implemented a liberating education."
In other words, school sucks because work sucks, so don’t let either
interfere with your education.