(2008; Entre les murs, French) "The kids can be tough," says a teacher at Dolto High School during introductions of new and returning faculty and staff. "I'd like to wish the new arrivals plenty of courage," comments a mathematics instructor who will be retiring at the end of the school year.
Photographed realistically, director Laurent Cantet's film has the appearance of a documentary without narrative, based on François Bégaudeau's book (the author collaborated with Cantet and Robin Campillo on the screenplay and portrays the movie's classroom teacher, François Marin).
For there to exist an environment for education, discipline must be maintained and distinguished from revenge; as well consequences of actions must be taken into consideration. Just as one method of instruction will not suffice for every student, a single code of conduct with uniform punishments and rewards will not be an effective means of promoting a positive academic atmosphere.
In his fourth year at the school teaching French to 14- and 15-year-old students, coming from a variety of ethnic backgrounds - African, Arabic, Chinese, Caribbean, Turkish - Marin has a largely open, patient, tolerant approach toward them, engaging and provoking them to speak up during class discussions (rather than attempting to lecture at them).
Putting up with their argumentativeness and wisecracks, occasionally teasing back, he nevertheless emphasizes politeness and respectful behavior while not wanting to waste time: "If I cut you some slack, you'll never get anywhere." (Though we are shown only one class, we must assume he also teaches four or five other sections as well.)
He addresses the kids' questions honestly, takes advantage of teachable moments, helps with vocabulary, and replies to one student's dismissal of lessons in grammar (verb tenses), distinguishing between colloquial and formal writing styles, as useless by saying: "You need to be able to use them."
They are easily distracted from the task at hand. After being prodded by Boubacar (Boubacar Toure), Souleymane (Franck Keïta), prefacing that he heard the comment from others, says: "People say you like men." Frustrated at their behaving like "animals in heat," a less experienced teacher reacts in the teachers' lounge: "They're nothing; they know nothing."
Insolence and insults Marin will not abide, as when Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) refuses to read from Anne Frank's Diary when called upon, accusing him of "picking on me"; he questions her after class about her new sullenness, asking her what happened over the summer after their getting along well last term. After finally getting her to apologize, she departs by throwing back: "I didn't mean it." Later he finds an essay on respect from her in his locker.
Most of the literature appropriate for their grade level is too challenging for these students, some struggling with a foreign language, such as Wei (Wei Huang); a conscientious student, he also must deal with his mother's being arrested as an illegal immigrant, for whom the faculty takes up a collection for her legal defense.
Assigned to compose a self-portrait, using Anne Frank's example, a student protests, "Our lives aren't as gripping," to which Marin replies: "What you feel is interesting." Another admits: "We may be ashamed of certain things," cultural differences that a Frenchman can't comprehend; Wei observes from his experience that many members of his generation show no shame.
A faculty discussion about the inadequacy of school's discipline policy - strict rules vs case-by-case approach - gets bogged down in favor of solving the problem of the coffee machine. A new student Carl enters the class, having been expelled from another school; Marin welcomes him, privately assuring the young African-Frenchman that he will receive a fresh second chance here.
Marin makes an extra effort of reaching out to kids such as the reticent Souleymane ("no one knows me but me"), with his negative attitude and persistent record of absences and inattentiveness, encouraging him to use his photographs as part of his self-portrait and then displaying and praising the finished work on a bullet board for others to see. (While these kids come from impoverished, disadvantaged homes, they are not lacking in stylish clothing, cellphones, and jewelry.)
During a debating session that turns unnecessarily aggressive, Marin has to escort Souleymane from class to the principal for uttering vulgarities. At a faculty conference in which the teachers discuss the academic progress and conduct of students, the two student representatives - Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) and Louise - carry on giggling and goofing; but afterward they share with their classmates what was voiced, telling Souleymane that Mr Marin said he was "limited" in his abilities.
When this comes out during class time - Souleymane questions his teacher's taking revenge against him, which Marin counters by saying it wasn't revenge - Esmeralda (a natural leader and often someone he can count on) incites the others against Marin, who in the heat of disputation says of the two girls' conduct during the conference as "acting like skanks." A chain reaction results in an unintentionally violent incident with Souleymane's bag striking and injuring Khoumba.
A disciplinary hearing must determine whether or not to expel Souleymane (rumors say that if the boy gets expelled his father will send him back to the village in Mali); over the past six months twelve students have had hearings, each resulting in an expulsion. Nearly all of the students (lacking an ability to view what's happened objectively, focusing solely on themselves as perpetual victims of the system), including Khoumba, take Souleymane's side against the "assholes."
Though Marin is guilty of a professional lapse in using the derogatory "skanks" (his interpretation of the word's meaning is different from theirs) in addressing the two girls, the students cannot apprehend the irony of their getting so upset and using filthy epithets when an adult falters. Realization of the consequences of their long inattention and hasty actions, for both students and teachers, occurs too late.
(A similar incident occurred to me while substitute teaching for a week with a notoriously difficult class of 9th graders. After repeatedly being on the receiving end of their verbal abuse and disrespectful attitude, I said to a group of those who instigated most of the trouble: "You're acting like jerks." Which they were, but I was the one who received a reprimand.)
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