The Class: To Sir, with love
Laurent Cantet’s Palme D’Or winner The Class is the best film ever made about education. Paul Dale explains why every MSP should be made to watch it
From Jean Vigo’s revolutionary fable Zero de Conduit to Nicolas Philibert’s celebration of republican schooling Etre et Avoir, education and cinema have always made odd bedfellows. The school as battleground as seen in Lindsay Anderson’s If.... and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale has long been a staple on which to hang simple-minded rhetoric, sci-fi allusion and murderous intent. And then there’s all those great things about school – inspirational teachers (Dangerous Minds), learning tolerance (To Sir, With Love), flush faced romantic pop (High School Musical) and insipid vampires (Twilight). None of which, as is the reasoning of French filmmaker Laurent Cantet’s new film, really has anything to do with the reality of those who spend their days ‘within the walls’ (as the film’s French title Entre les Murs has it) of your average state funded school.
Cantet, a brilliant filmmaker who has already taken a pickaxe to the tyrannies of workplace politics, unemployment and sexual colonisation by the idle rich in Human Resources, Time Out and Heading South treads a fine line in The Class between reality and fiction. Taking as its source the memoirs of François Bégaudeau – a former high school teacher turned novelist, now scriptwriter and lead actor – the film shows the daily battle of wits involved in teaching an inner city secondary class (in Paris’ unfashionable Belleville district). Bégaudeau plays François Marin, an extension of his former self – a gifted and dedicated teacher who bears the weight of ridiculous protocol and the petty complaints of his contemporaries in order to give the very best to his often resentful students. But this experienced and dedicated teacher discovers the fragility of the world he inhabits when he lets slip with a derogatory remark to one of his pupils.
In keeping with social realist traditions, Cantet’s film draws on a largely non-professional cast (mostly from Paris’ Francoise Dolto school) to create a portrait of mundanity and adolescent hysteria, of immigrant illiteracy and simmering tensions. It’s a place where the good go to the wall while the mediocre survive by not giving a shit. In other words it’s your average comprehensive in France, in England, in Scotland.
If you want to know why, retirement aside, half of Scotland’s teachers are set to leave the profession in the next four years, leading to an unprecedented recruitment crisis, The Class will tell you why. For all our faith in schools as the bedrock of modern citizenship, teachers today are faced with a veritable plague of problems (well intentioned bureaucracy, mobile phones, disempowerment) that just did not exist when the cane was all the authority a teacher needed. No one wants to go back to those days, but neither do we want to lose the best of our generation. So, Fiona Hyslop, where’s the pastoral care? Where are the learning enhancement centres? Crown Hills Community Centre in Leicester should be your template. Without places such as these, there is no future – for the kids or the teachers.
The Class, GFT, Glasgow and Cameo, Edinburgh from Fri 27 Feb.