Last night I saw a French Canadian film, Monsieur Lazhar. It was one of those films that immerse you completely in the watching, and fails to leave you for many hours, perhaps days afterwards.
Lazhar is an Algerian who sidles into an unexpectedly vacant teacher’s job. The Head is pretty desperate and has no applicants, so that when he presents himself, obliging and immediately available, she takes him on. His class of 11-12 year olds in this small primary school in a suburb are trying to adjust to the suicide of their teacher, found hanging in their classroom by the scamp of the class. They quickly take him to their hearts and their grades go up as he stretches them academically. We realise he hasn’t the teacher training to rely upon. He starts with a dictation from Balzac. However, his total commitment to the children pays off.
The plot unravels to reveal why Lazhar needed the job and his especial sensitivity to the children’s feelings. We also find the effect the suicide has on the different children in the class and their various perceptions of events. The teachers, the Head, one of the children gradually reveal what caused the suicide.
It is a beautifully written and directed film (Philippe Falardeau) with memorable acting from all actors, including the children. It was good to see how each child was individually portrayed, not as a class mass. The quality of acting gained from two of the children was exceptional. I also enjoyed the clever and amusing small part of the drama teacher making a play for Lazhar. The scene where she hopefully has him to dinner was delicately and subtly managed.
The themes of this film are far bigger than expected. What should we say or not say to children who have witnessed a terrible event. How should we deal with their distress and possible misunderstandings? The film shows the tension between the ‘Let’s move on, help them to forget it’ and the opposite view. One child uses her oral presentation assignment to throw the whole subject open, putting a very different slant on the event.
Bigger still, and a subject that badly needs much public re-think, is the zero tolerance policy for touching of any sort. The sports teacher has the children running in circles (literally) because he cannot help them climb, or mount the ‘horse’ any more. The other teachers reflect on the impossibility of disciplining or restraining students. Lazhar, never having been trained as a teacher, taps the back of a child’s head for throwing an object at another child. (Sackable offence?) Ultimately, we learn what happened when the dead teacher comforted a boy who was crying.
The outfall for good will and love is undeserved punishment, but the last shot of the film makes its emotional point.
The Dalai Lama advised that tenderness is vital for a child’s healthy development. How sad if teachers and others must withhold what they see is sorely needed.
Ballet teachers are in difficulties; no longer can they correct a body position, such as a leg in arabesque, (“higher, turn it out”) with a push or point at the part of the body needing fine adjustment. This kind of touching, often not gentle, was formerly regarded as a sexless and necessary part of communication.
On the wider front, nowadays, it is felt that children cannot be allowed to trust automatically. Unknown adults must be mistrusted automatically.
Perhaps it is down to writers to help things along. Falardeau has certainly done his bit.