Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Entre les murs

As much as I would like to place a film with modern references, with modern slang on top of Blackboard Jungle, I still cannot do so with Entre les Murs (“Within the Walls”, shockingly called The Class for international audiences), just because the film is more a documentary, a calm documentary that does not provoke, does not take sides, does not take any partisan view, and does not provide any insight. It’s a quite successful observation of today’s modern education system and the generations that barely complete their bac; though what the film doesn’t even dare to do is to leave questions, if not answers, with you. And coupled with a surprising student lingo low in sexual innuendoes, the film makes you think: what would have the novel been like without any story, any thought to offer?

Where the film excels is the tight cinematography from unconventional angles, making the camera a direct participant observer of the action, and an ensemble cast, including the novel author himself reprising his role as the school teacher, M. Marin. The indecisive, shaky principal whose primary interest seems to keep the school’s business intact, the many confused identities among students (esp. Khoumba and Souleymane) and the staff themselves, and the school teacher Marin who could never inject humor in his class and who could himself get into arguments with his students time and again: who simply didn’t have the know of what question is right to which person at what time--all make the film a delight to watch. Even if the filmmaker doesn’t want to offer any solution, he does offer the quandary: an underperforming or undisciplined student might sink further if not punished and may lead to similar behavior in others; on the other hand, will punishing him/her help? What would be the impact in his personal life of such a punishment? Punishment--is it a system of correcting someone, or is it just a system of getting hopeless over someone and then isolating him in a bid to keep the society running smoothly and keep the glaring spots out of sight?

What I found to be the issue with the film is that the film failed to explore in depth the ways, the methods on both sides, and when it might be necessary to forego one for the other. M. Marin was hardly an inspiring teacher, so his just being softer doesn’t do much for the students; I personally would have hardly liked such a teacher. He is not firm, not articulate enough, and he does go by the rulebook on strange occasions: on one hand punishments are bad, yet he has to write in the report book of a student who clearly was off color, who clearly was having some personal crisis. Afraid at each step, what can any teacher achieve? Bound within the framework, what can he hope to achieve? Still an excellent film, in that it at least brings to the fore the issues at education in most Western countries; and many of the students would themselves be the audience, not to mention the teachers. What a teacher should always remember is that he’s not a passive actor in a student’s transformation or growth or at any stage: “what can I do more?” is not the question. There has to be always something more.

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