The only people who really know what goes on inside a classroom are the teacher and the students. The parents don't know. The principal and the other teachers don't know. And that idea intrigued the French filmmaker behind The Class, which has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Some American teachers say that even though the film is set in France, it provides a window into what goes on in an urban middle school in the United States as well.
The Class begins at the start of a new school year. The teachers are in the lounge looking over the lists of their new students.
"I laughed about it, because the teachers do exactly that thing. We look at last year's list and say, 'Good, good, ugh trouble, good, good — yeah, you'll love that child — oh, watch out for that one,' " says Cynthia Mostoller, an eighth grade teacher at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. "And I said, 'Oh, the French are just like the Americans.' "
Authenticity was important to the producers of The Class. The story is based on a book by a former middle school teacher in Paris. The author — who's now an actor — plays a version of himself in the film. The young people who play the students were not professional actors. So even though the film is fiction, it sometimes has the feel of a documentary.
Dedication To Realism
The film's middle school is in a tough, largely immigrant neighborhood. The teacher, Francois, tries to relate to his students on their level. But, in some cases, the students go too far and become disrespectful.
"Francois is, you know, just a teacher who is trying to do his best and sometimes makes mistakes, and sometimes makes very good things," says Laurent Cantet, the film's director.
Cantet had the cast work from a script, but also encouraged them to improvise. And that realism appealed to Ana Hernandez, a counselor at Alice Deal Middle School, who says it's "unlike a lot of the teacher films made in Hollywood."
"They're usually extraordinary human beings or supercharismatic. And if you work in a school, it's really hard to sustain that charisma and that stamina for years, for five, six periods a day, every day," Hernandez says.
Capturing A Turning Point
It was also important to Cantet that he capture what it's like for students who are around 13 or 14 years old — at a turning point in their lives. "It's a moment you start to think of yourself in the society," he says.
Take the character Esmeralda. She's bright, but she's also disruptive and confrontational.
"I have an Esmeralda this year, who I keep telling her that she's going to be a warrior woman if she ever decides to use her talents for constructive purposes," Mostoller says.
Mostoller says it would be easy to write off students like Esmeralda.
"She was aggressive. She's nonconformist. She seemed inattentive," Mostoller says.
But at the end of film, Esmeralda reveals that she read her older sister's copy of Plato's Republic.
"We look at these kids [and] we forget to appreciate that they do have potential," Mostoller says. "We've decided very early, she's not going to learn anything from us, so don't worry about it. And she comes through with The Republic and expresses very nicely some of the important lessons of that book."
Mostoller says The Class reminded her that her students are individuals — and each one of them brings something to the table.