The Class (15)

Directed by Laurent Cantet
Written by François Bégaudeau (novel and screenplay), Robin Campillo and Laurent Cantet
Screening at FACT from 27th February 2009

Reviewed by Adam Ford

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 and Souleymane.

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.

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