Issues in 'The Class' echo round the world

'The Class'
Francois Begaudeau plays a junior high French teacher in an inner city school in "The Class." The film is based on a book he wrote about his experiences as a teacher.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Thirteen students from Madam Law's French 3 class at St Paul's Harding High School get popcorn and drinks.

Then they head into a theater at the Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis to see "The Class."

Harding students
Students from Mme Law's French 3 class at Harding High School in St Paul went to see "The Class." Several of the students said they recognized similar situations to their own school lives in the film. Some also said it made them appreciate the tough job teachers sometimes have.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

It's the story of a junior high French Class in Paris taught by an idealistic teacher called Francois. His students live in an inner city neighborhood.

On a recent visit to the Twin Cities, director Laurent Cantet said many of the characters in the film are recent immigrants.

"I think it was quite important right now to look at the way children, especially when they are coming from other countries, like some of them in the film, to look at the way the children can think (for) themselves, and look for themselves too," he says.

"The Class" is based on a real story. Cantet says he had unsuccessfully been trying to write a script about a school, when he literally bumped into Francois Begaudeau at a radio station. He was an inner-city junior high teacher who had written a book about his experiences.

"It is important for me to make a difference between documentary and fiction. Of course the film is just at the limit between the two."

"Just coming out of the studio I told him 'I will read your book really soon because it reminds me of my project,'" and he told me 'Let's talk of it.' And two days after, we decided to work together."

The book revealed a complex world where issues from outside the school keep rearing their heads inside the classroom. There are family matters, immigration issues, and racial friction, all steeping in a broth of teenage hormones. "It was important that the actor who would play the teacher could improvise with the children, so it has to be a real teacher," he says.

Cantet says he soon realized Begaudeau should take the role.

Cantet then used a workshop to find the teenagers to play the students in the film. He says he didn't really choose them though, they chose themselves.

"We started with 50 students," he says. "And after a few weeks some of them left, and the most involved in the process, they are the 25 that are in the film."

Laurent Cantet
Film director Laurent Cantet has made several feature films including "Heading South" with Charlotte Rampling. He says however he likes the collaborative and improvisational method he used to make "The Class" and he would like to try it again, perhaps even with a historical story.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Cantet says on shooting days he would tell his actors individually what he wanted them to say during a scene. Then they would improvise as three cameras rolled.

After one long take, Cantet would then rerun sections of the script, building the story.

It makes the film look almost like a documentary, but Cantet stresses it isn't.

"It is important for me to make a difference between documentary and fiction," he says. "Of course the film is just at the limit between the two."

The film follows a year in the life of the French class. It's a hodgepodge of dramas big and small. Teachers and students make mistakes and the class has to deal with the consequences.

Back at the Lagoon theater, the Harding High School students emerge from "The Class." They liked what they saw.

On set
Francois Begaudeau (second from left) and Laurent Cantet (second from right) work with student actors on the set of "The Class." Cantet says the young actors were amazing in the things they did.
Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

"It shows you the perspective of the student and the teacher," says Allerina Yang.

"It kind of reminds me of my childhood" says Touko Lee, "Because back then I was a troublemaker, and I would try to get on the teacher's nerves just for the heck of it."

Fartun Dirie was surprised by the open expression of tension between the different racial groups in "The Class."

"In America, you wouldn't see race come up that much in classrooms," she says.

Agira Namutuha says she saw something new. "It helped me understand more about how teachers really feel," she says.

"I was a bit surprised at how similar our French counterparts are to Americans or people in the United States," says Paris Yarbrough.

Cantent said that what was really surprising was that in all the countries he has been presenting the film, the questions seem just about the same.

Cantet has been travelling all over with the film, and he's been getting a lot of positive response. "The Class" won the top prize at the Cannes film festival and now it's nominated for the best foreign language film at this years Oscars.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, several Twin Cities schools have booked group tickets for the film.

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