PARIS — As part of our class’s unit on education, today we watched the movie Entre les Murs (The Class), which won the prestigious Palm d’Or prize at the Cannes film festival in 2008. With good reason.
The film, based on a book by François Béagaudeau, is a quasi-documentary/re-enactment of a year he spent teaching at a public middle school, College Françoise Dolto, in a diverse and difficult neighborhood of Paris. Béagaudeau plays himself (under the name Francois Marin), as do the children in his class, which makes for an extremely realistic portrayal of a modern day French school. Said school is located, of all places, in the 19th arrondissement, just a few blocks away from where I’m staying. My host parents told me tonight at dinner that after the movie became successful, there was a legal uproar over the production company’s reluctance to pay the children.
In any case, it’s a striking movie. Almost every student in Marin’s class comes originally from somewhere other than France; they wear jerseys supporting the Tunisian soccer team, talk of their cousins in Morocco, and express feelings of alienation from “jambon et fromage” French people in suits. They are bright, but unruly. The school was/is classified by the French government as a ZEP, or Zone d’Éducation Prioritaire, i.e. an at-risk school, and indeed, in the opening scenes, the teachers express their frustrations with the kids and the education system in general. One lets out a waterfall of swears and exclamations, paraphrased: we’re not trying to get the most out of them with these ****ing norms, they will never leave their neighborhood…
Among the brimming personalities in Marin’s class, one boy, Souleymane, struck me especially strongly. When the class undertakes a unit on autobiography and self-portraits, he is initially reluctant; he writes one sentence along the lines of “no one will ever fully know me, so I don’t want to write about myself.” He has a tattoo that reads (in Arabic script) “if what you have to say isn’t more important than silence, be quiet.” With encouragement and attention from Marin, however, gum-chewing, bling-wearing Souleymane begins to show an interest in the project. He brings in some beautiful photos of his family and friends to compose his portrait, and the shy smile on his face when Marin hangs them up as an example for the rest of the class…for a split second I saw Souleymane the photojournalist, his photos on billboards in the Metro and published in Le Figaro.
Instead, he acts out in class one day and ends up, through a long and tortured process, kicked out of Françoise Dolto. The school is supposed to do all in its power to place him elsewhere as quickly as possible, but that might not matter; his mother, who does not understand French and speaks to him rapidly throughout his trial in the Bambara language of Mali, cannot help him. According to his friends, his father will be disgraced and send him back to Mali.
What to do about students like Souleymane? How to discipline their unruliness and tap their potential and their passions? To help them become a photojournalist, or simply someone with a job?
France’s education system, like the US’s, struggles to bring students from marginalized backgrounds to levels of higher education and, some would argue, is even more discriminatory. For example, a “class council” composed of teachers, two parents, and two peer-elected students is responsible for deciding a student’s next step after the equivalent of sophomore year in high school. This can be, depending on a student’s grades, entry to the work force/unemployment, to a trade school, or to the more traditional lycées. Such early selection is inherently unequal. Children of parents with white-collar jobs make it to the lycées, and then university, with three times the frequency of children of working-class and immigrant parents. Although the trade schools are equally demanding, they are not viewed as well as the lycées and attending one can be limiting. In such a system, “difficult” students like Souleymane are so easily lost.
On the Metro on my way back to the apartment, I found a seat next to an African woman wrapped in yards of shiny, embroidered, black cloth. She spoke to her friend in what sounded (to my ignorant ear, at least) exactly like the punctuated Mali Bambara in the movie, and when our paths finally diverged at the top of the endless escalator at the Place des Fetes Metro stop, I wondered if she were headed home to her own Souleymane.
The movie’s blog is available here and includes the trailer and more background on the making of the film, as well as an email address to talk to the students themselves. Make sure to use French slang if you write them!