A tough look at life in a modern day Parisian school, The Class has been winning plaudits around the globe for its documentary-style and improvised script delivered by a cast of real pupils and new actors.
I spoke to The Class’s director and co-writer Laurent Cantet about the film’s cast, the chance of sequels and a US remake just a few days before the film was narrowly beaten at the 2009 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category.
Firstly, congratulations on your Oscar nomination for The Class. Can you tell me what the last year been like for you and the cast following your win at Cannes?
I’ve spent a lot of time on planes and with journalists, travelling to around 23 countries. I haven’t seen my children much or any films in the last year and I haven’t had time to think about my next project. At the same time it has been interesting to hear people’s reaction from all over the world and realising that the questions the film is asking are relevant wherever you are.
Going back a little, how did you first get involved with the film? What was it that appealed to you about the script?
I’d started to write a script about a school, the idea being to stay within the walls of the school. Two years later I read François Bégaudeau’s book and when I met him on a radio talk show I realised he could give me a lot of documentary material that would help with my film.
I was also very interested in the character in the main character in the book, I liked the way he talked to the children, always provoking them. I also liked the way he was always considering his work in the classroom.
As I already had my own story, I proposed that rather than just adapting his book we use elements of it with some children to see how they might react to the situations it covered.
Was that a new way of working for you?
Usually I rehearse a lot with actors, but this time I took the risk to improvise during the shooting, so I did had to find a new way of filming that allowed that. We used three cameras, and would make the first shot very improvised, just to see how the children could bring their own experience to the scene.
I then worked with them between the first and second take, doing it again and again and again until we finally get the scene we liked.
While the children in the film all have very unique personalities, they aren’t the most appealing to audiences – how did you persuade them to appear in the film when they aren’t the most likeable?
They aren’t acting themselves in the film. We worked for one school year to create the characters – some of them are quite close to the actors while others are quite far away.
Souliman for example, the tough guy in the class, he’s the quietist one in real life, very shy and gentle, but he likes acting so we worked with him to develop that character.
Did the classroom scenes ever get too out of hand? Was anything cut?
We didn’t have any trouble during the shoot, having fun even during the tenser moments. There was also quite a bit of control by the social services, as there is any time you work with teenagers, and so nobody was tired or stressed.
The film makes some interesting observations on the way children today respond to issues of race and authority – do you think there are any easy solutions to the problems?
I don’t think I’m really showing the full diversity of the problem, more the situation in one region. It’s a difficult issue, but part of the solution is maybe for people to just try and understand and learn from each other more.
What sort of response have you had from teachers?
Teachers have been divided over the film.
Some teachers recognise the situation, face it every day in their class and accept the method we showed.
Others just didn’t want to recognise themselves, maybe because their class is quite different or maybe because they don’t want the parents to see what’s happening in the class. Perhaps it’s also because they see it like a documentary, a global image of what a school is.
I don’t have that view of the film, I see it as a fiction which shows moments of the class where the teacher decides to discuss these topics. It doesn’t mean he does it all year long, with more traditional lessons also taking place. I think it’s important to let the children have enough space to think about what they’re doing, what relationship they can have with the teacher.
What’s the most positive thing that’s happened to you since the films release?
The most important thing for me would be the way people now view the children in the film. They’re always stigmatised, treated like idiots who just play video games. I hope the film does them justice, showing they can be involved in something important.
Would you consider a sequel to the film, following some of the characters after they graduate?
The film studios are pushing for that, but I’m not sure what my next film will be. As soon as the film did well they were asking “So when are we doing part two?” and I’m sure they’d love a number two, number three and number seven!
How would you respond to the idea of a glossy Hollywood remake?
I’d be quite shocked by that. What I like isn’t just the film itself but the way we made it, and that’s almost more important to me than the film itself. It just wouldn’t be the same.
Thanks to Laurent Cantet for his time