Monday, June 22, 2009

2008 Cannes "Golden Palm" Winner Laurent Cantet on "The Class"

In Taormina as member of the Festival Jury, French Director Laurent Cantet talks about his experience winning the “Golden Palm” at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival for “The Class”, the debate it sparked, his view on the role of schools (both of his parents were school teachers according to Wikipedia) and his approach to film making.

Winning the “Golden Palm"

Many people were quite surprised when your film won the “Golden Palm” - were you surprised as well?

Laurent Cantet: Yes, it was a surprise too. The film was just finished, and after one year working with the children, we realized that this worked out but we didn’t know if it was a good film or not. We didn’t know whether foreigners would understand it because of the language and the energy of the dialogue. When we arrived in Cannes we were the third French film in competition, and the one that had not been on the initial program – so we were really outsiders. But since the film was shown at the very end of the festival, we did market screenings at the beginning of the festival, and we had a good feeling after those. We had the feeling distributors wanted to buy the film. You can trust the distributors; they know their public, so this was a good sign.

Your film was quite successful commercially. Did the Golden Palm open a new phase in your work, or is it just an award?

Laurent Cantet: I didn’t have time to work on it, but I hope that the next film will be easier to produce, and that I don’t have to justify the method that I am using. I think I will be freer than I was. I think that’s the only thing that changed – I didn’t change much myself.

The Debate

In a way, your film transcended cinema – it captured joy and horror in the class, but it also posed a serious question about the French schooling system.

Laurent Cantet: Yes, it sparked a big debate. Between Cannes and September nobody saw the film, but everybody had to something to say about it. Especially the teachers were concerned. They are used to be criticized, so they protected themselves. They were afraid of the film; some of them didn’t like the book. It’s not the film that created the debate, which had started before. But the film made a lot of people talk about school, and about adolescence – and that’s what the movie is about. People talked about the space we give adolescents in society, especially if they are immigrants.

After the success of the film, which showed the teachers in a positive light, did their reaction change?

Laurent Cantet: No. The teachers that were negative don’t want to recognize themselves in the teacher in the film. They saw it as a documentary film about school, and that’s not what I did. The teachers thought it was a partial view. They were afraid that parents would think that school is just that.

On Schools

The film shows the story of pedagogic failure in the end.

Laurent Cantet: The film is not just about the failure. It shows that these kids are able to think, to understand things, even if it is not very comfortable for them or for the teacher. They are quite clever when they argue with the teacher. I hope this energy can be considered something that school can develop. That’s one of the main missions of school – even more than teaching the rules of the language. School should teach you critical sense and how to be a citizen. Some teachers dare to do this; others think it is too dangerous. That’s what I like about the book. Maybe that’s why some of the teachers reject the movie.

You provoke a serious discussion about the “melting pot” of different backgrounds of adolescents in French school.

Laurent Cantet: It is one of the main questions we have to face now. The world is becoming more mixed. These kids really don’t feel desired by our society even if they were born here - they are as French as I am. If they feel that nobody listens to them, of course they will get angry. The revolts we had in the suburbs are result of this misunderstanding.

Some say your film also showed the importance of language.

Laurent Cantet: Language is so important to find your place in the society. You have different levels of language. If you don’t go from one level to another you won’t be able to become an adult. That’s what Francois is trying to teach them, that they have to use different language in different situations.

So school is a segregating machine.

Laurent Cantet: You can’t say that this is good or bad. It is a place that helps a lot of these kids to integrate. On the other hand you have lot of kids that are expelled from school just like Suleman.

But he learns something in the end.

Laurent Cantet: I don’t know … I went to a lot of these disciplinary councils. You can feel that teachers are not very proud of what they are doing there. For them, it’s a sign that they failed, that these kids will drop out of the system. You have Suleman; you have this girl at the end that says “I don’t know what I am doing here”. You have more and more children that don’t know what they are doing at school.

Your film shows professors that are deprived of their legacy. Marin looks like a hero, trying to do positive things.

Laurent Cantet: He is really trying to give sense to what these children are doing. I think that’s the only way to teach. If you just learn something you don’t understand why you actually learn it.

Making Films

Your film is not only interesting on a political level, but also on a psychological level.

Laurent Cantet: Yes, when I am making a film I always focus on the characters. When working with actors, I am building characters with them. I am really happy that you can recognize characters in the film, even if it is very focused on the group. I started with a very anarchic group, not knowing who will develop into characters. Over time, I discovered who can become a character. We built the story this way.

You seem to have a documentary approach to a certain problem and creating a story around that.

Laurent Cantet: I found a method that really fits me with “The Class”, and I’d like to keep working like this. I really managed to work the way I wanted, with a very open script that could develop. We found also a new way of filming – we had three cameras so the actors could express themselves without cutting.

Most of the kids and their fathers and mothers are more or less playing themselves.

Laurent Cantet: Not at all! Although some of them are close to their characters, for example Esmeralda. But with all of them we created characters. We rehearsed a lot. They were able to improvise during the first take based on their understanding of the character, and I told them what I liked or not. We rehearsed for seven months each week. After a few months we had all the characters.

How did you work with Francois Begaudeau, who wrote the book and is also your main actor and script writer?

Laurent Cantet: He was there for all the rehearsals. We worked very closely together, he knew what I wanted.

Can you say something about your next movie?

Laurent Cantet: I don’t know what my next film will be because I did not have time to work on that. What I might be interested in is a period film, something very different, but using the same method I used for “The Class”.

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