Troubled Students, or Troubled Film?

Entre les murs (The Class) - 2008 (directed by Laurent Cantet; adapted from the novel ‘Entre les murs’ by François Bégaudeau)

The glowing Guardian review describes the 2008 Palme d’Or winner ‘Entre les murs (The Class)’ as a piece of “humanist, realist, [and] optimist cinema.” The film is certainly naturalistic; the performances of the young actors playing the students are absolutely persuasive – it feels less like a fiction film than a documentary. But as a teacher, I don’t see much optimism in it. I can’t help watching it without feeling profoundly sad, and I don’t know whether to praise or condemn it for being so bleak.

Perhaps I bring to it the expectations of an American uplift picture about a great teacher who rescues a troubled class. (It was praised by many critics precisely for not being such a film, and fair enough.) Instead, we get a teacher, Mr. Marin (François Bégaudeau, playing a version of himself) who is arguably just about as troubled as the students, if only because he can’t seem to see – or to say vigorously enough to his colleagues – that the students are not the problem.

The students are energetic, perhaps overly casual (even vulgar), but they don’t strike me as particularly troubled. None of them is coming to school with drugs, guns or knives. When he makes careless assumptions about them, like that they have never been into central Paris or to certain cultured districts of the city, they rightly react defensively: “We live in Paris. We’re not peasants.” And it takes him longer than it should to understand why a Muslim student was unhappy about being offered food that smelled of bacon! If anything, they seem like normally playful, cocksure teenagers, eager to do something at school that’s of interest. What is not so clear is if the teacher (or the system) provides them with stimulation to match their energy level. What, after all, does the syllabic structure of French poetry have to do with any of their lives?

The film shows the naturalistic ebb and flow of a classroom over the course of a year. The teacher gets into conflict with one student or another. They are not on speaking terms for a while. Later the chill thaws and they are friendly again. But we don’t see what changes, we just assume that human relations are taking their natural course. Nothing out of the ordinary happens, really. Egos are bruised and tentatively repaired. A new student arrives from another school. A student gets hit in the face with a bag, by accident, and bleeds a little. The student responsible (in the most limited sense) gets expelled, and this – sadly – is also ordinary.

In the classroom, we see a typical dynamic: the ‘troublemakers’ (mostly kids of colour) sit at the back, the teacher hovers near the front, and they spar off and on every day. Most of the students remain anonymous. We only get to know a handful, mostly kids of colour (Africans, Arabs, one Chinese boy). I was aware the whole time of the dynamic of a white teacher teaching a largely irrelevant bourgeois colonial curriculum to immigrants and students of colour. But is the film aware of this? I really don’t know.

I get no sense of the film having an ‘analysis’ of the racial dimension of the educational failure we are watching unfold. We see, in the background, black and perhaps Arab faculty members, but they never speak a word on screen. When the disciplining of black students comes before the teachers’ various committees, no black teacher ever speaks to the issue. We see white faces disciplining black bodies and we, rightly, feel uncomfortable. What is the goal of this system? It seems to be about little more than a failed grasping after social control.

The teacher tries to reach them with a self-portrait project, but he offers no self-portrait of his own. He forces the students to share their work with the class, whether they want to or not. And he does it with his power as a teacher, not with persuasion, inspiration, or the creation of a ‘safe’ space for this kind of sharing. At the risk of sounding a bit superior, I think a basic rule of teaching – that I’ve always tried to apply – is: “Don’t ask the students to do anything you are not willing to do yourself.” If the students have to share intimate details of their lives, details that may be used against them later (as they are), why should the teacher get to remain safely anonymous? We never learn anything about his personal life. The students provoke him one day by – quite politely – asking him to address the rumour that he is gay. He skirts it with sarcasm and teacherly put-downs. He shares nothing of himself, his own hopes, dreams, struggles, insecurities, etc. And why would he? He behaves like he is in a low-grade war with the nearly unteachable. Is it any wonder they respond in kind?

Indeed, his preferred way of interacting with them is a kind of self-defensive sarcasm. He demands respect simply because he is a teacher, but does he show respect in return? At one point, he is provoked into calling two of the girls “skanks”, which they naturally push back against, and he resists taking responsibility or admitting his mistake far longer than he should. He plays into their (mostly playful) taunts at each other (about the soccer teams they support, etc.) and feeds the hopeless cycle of threatened egos and escalating defences thereof. As any good teacher should know, when our lizard brains are kicked into fight or flight mode (a so-called “amygdala hijack”) you have lost the students for a minimum of 20 minutes – the time it takes to calm down from such a heightened state of arousal. But the teacher regularly pushes them toward it, with his confrontational, sarcastic style, rather than helping them back away from it.

The film does a good job of capturing the claustrophobia of a teacher and a set of students trapped in a room together for hours and hours each day. We see little or nothing of the teacher’s or students’ lives outside the classroom or the school. We don’t see them in their homes, at their part-time jobs, in their neighbourhoods. We don’t see the teacher with a spouse or friends, don't hear what he says to them about his job, have no idea what he does on the weekend. All we see is the school and the classroom, day after punishing day. It seems like punishment for both the students and the teachers. But does the teacher have anyone but himself to blame for it being so?

Part of the confusion and ambivalence the film (consciously?) provokes in us is owing to the positioning of the teacher as the hero, or at least the protagonist. We see the story very much through Mr. Marin’s eyes – after all, the film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of Bégaudeau, the (non-?)actor playing a version of himself. What is it he wants us to observe about either him as a teacher or the system in which he works? And is he positioning himself as above it, or as hopelessly mired in it, and all its inadequacies? I really can’t tell.

He comes off best when contrasted with the other teachers, some of whom simply dismiss the students as ignorant animals, unteachable. (It is important to remember this is a perfectly average Parisian middle school, not a ‘ghetto’ or ‘slum’ school.) Amazingly, none of the other teachers contradict this teacher when he goes on this vicious rant in the staff room. Having had some experience of teaching in ‘inner city’ schools, I can say that this frustration on the part of white middle class teachers with students who don’t behave like white middle class kids is absolutely banal. And we can guess how invested some of those teachers are in the success of those students, or how readily they are written off as hopeless cases, as the student Souleymane (Franck Keita) is in this film.

Incredibly – and I wonder if this is a holdover from May ’68 or some such student uprising – two of the students from Mr. Marin’s class are allowed to be present as class reps when the teachers are discussing the students’ marks for the semester, and thus, privy to all the dismissive, even insulting things that are said about their classmates. The teachers, bizarrely, do not curtail their comments in any way in light of who is present, such that even Mr. Marin is heard describing Souleymane (a Malian student, the chief ‘troublemaker’) as “academically limited.” When this gets back to the students, it inevitably causes not an uproar but understandable hurt feelings, for which Mr. Marin will not apologize. Instead, he blames the class representatives for reporting what they heard. This betrays an astonishing lack of empathy or understanding on the part of the teacher, such that we wonder, what is this film about? The advertising copy on the DVD has (falsely) led us to expect a touching story about a unique teacher connecting with a needy group of students. Instead, the feeling we are left with at the end of the film edges close to despair, as one student comes up to Mr. Marin as the school year is winding down and sincerely, even mournfully, says, “I have learned nothing.”

If the film is brave, it is so for showing not superheroes working educational wonders but mediocre teachers in a mediocre system producing mediocre results. Mr. Marin only admits his own fault (calling two of his girls “skanks”) under compulsion from his superior, and only to avoid future liability. But the film captures the sad irony toward the end when Mr. Marin tepidly tries to fight for Souleymane, who is facing expulsion (after riding him all year and labelling him a ‘troublemaker’ to his face). All the little reactionary and totally ineffective acts of discipline and correction inflicted on this boy have led – inevitably – to his expulsion. It’s a foregone conclusion, the disciplinary hearing an empty ritual.

The student, clearly, has not been well-served by the system. When another student warns Mr. Marin about the dire home situation he is condemning Souleymane to if he is expelled, Mr. Marin dismisses her concerns, telling her not to worry about it, and makes no attempt to confirm what she says by speaking directly to Souleymane. When his mother arrives for the disciplinary meeting, she speaks almost no French, and no translator (other than her son) is present to speak for her. The school seems blithely indifferent to her needs (can’t hardly even imagine them), and to his.

By contrast, the teachers take up a collection to help pay the legal bills of the mother of the Chinese student, Wei, who is fighting deportation. Why doesn't Souleymane's family inspire a similar amount of sympathy and aid? Is it just because Wei is a 'good' student? One wonders if Souleymane ever had a hope in a system more interested in controlling him than educating him?

The film documents the 'problem' well enough, I suppose, but offers nothing in the way of suggesting what needs to change. And the price of failing to come to grips with these problems is evident everywhere in the gloomy landscape of contemporary France. Sympathetic though the conflicted protagonist may be, the film that centers him so prominently never comes anywhere close to suggesting that – maybe, just maybe – these are entirely the wrong teachers for these students.