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Filmmaker Laurent Cantet Discusses 'The Class'

Bridging Narrative and Documentary Genres


Filmmaker Laurent Cantet Discusses 'The Class'

Filmmaker Laurent Cantet

Sony Pictures Classics
French filmmaker Laurent Cantet deftly bridges the narrative and documentary genres in The Class, recently nominated for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

Set in a Parisian junior high school, the film follows students of various ethnicities through one academic year, as they not only negotiate the troubles of being teenagers and grapple with tough problems foisted upon them by life beyond their classroom’s walls, but also read The Diary Of Anne Frank and discuss the issues of racism it raises.

Cantet based the script on Entre Les Murs, a novel French film critic and former teacher Francois Begaudeau wrote about his experiences working in a school like the one seen in the film. Begaudeau brings his expertise to The Class in another way, too--he stars as the kids’ teacher.

Most of 24 kids in the film are actually students at Francoise Dolto Junior High in Paris. They contributed elements of their personal stories to the screenplay, which centers around the life and travails of one Malian boy, Souleymane, one of several characters played by actors.

Cantet’s unique approach to developing the screenplay, his casting of nonprofessional actors to play characters based essentially on themselves and his shooting in situ give his narrative feature a rare and fascinating air of authenticity.

The film’s through line presents many pressing social issues, and if authenticity is the goal, why not just capture these kids’ real lives in a documentary?

“Because,” says Cantet, “when you make a documentary, you don’t control what happens or how it appears on the screen. You can’t determine the outcome of the story and what becomes of the characters. I prefer to have the control when I make a film.”

MERIN: But you use nonactors in The Class. How do you keep control of their performances?

CANTET: I know it may seem strange, but I found that the boys and girls in the cast found it easier to be true to themselves when they had a mask--a character--to explore, even if their characters were essentially themselves. There is something that happens to a person who stands in front of a camera as themselves that makes them act differently--even if they feel they’re being completely themselves.

When you stand in front of a documentary filmmaker, you protect yourself. But here, the kids could be inside the characters, and that was a form of protection that allowed them to be more sincere, in a way, than they could be if they didn’t have the characters to play. So, the boys and girls in The Class are less self-conscious--thinking less about what they are doing and the impression they are making--because they’re playing characters--even if the characters have their same names and problems and are saying dialog that originated with them.

And, as for the teacher, I think Francois was the right choice because he was a teacher and it really takes a teacher to understand the relationships with students, and what the classroom ambiance is all about, and the interactions with other faculty members. I don’t think anyone knows what it is to be a teacher unless they have been a teacher.

MERIN: These nonactors, as it turns out, are wonderful actors. How did you find them?

CANTET: Actually, the first place we went to look was Francoise Dolto Junior High in the 20th arrondisement in Paris, and it was the perfect place, with the right kind of students and a very interesting faculty--who appear in the film, too.

We met with a lot of students at the school, asked them about their lives and concerns, improvised with them. It took about a year of going back, working with them and developing the project, but we finally got the group that’s in the film. We cast their real parents as their characters’ parents, too. So, there’s already a real authenticity to the project. The students and their families are really a very interesting, dedicated group, and they do represent a microcosm of modern France‘s multi-ethnicity and the challenges that presents.

MERIN: How much of the screenplay was based on the book and how much on their improvisations, and how much did you invent?

CANTET: I’d been working on Souleymane’s story before I found Francois’ book, so Souleymane and his story is the most constructed part of the script. But, Souleymane is just one of the students in the class until about the middle of the film, when his story really comes into focus.

Francois’ book chronicles one year in class, and the Souleymane story is important because it gives the film structure. A lot of the screenplay evolved from improvisations we did over the course of a year working with all the students who volunteered for the workshop. There were more students in the workshop than were eventually cast in the film. We worked for three hours every week, and improvised a lot of different scenes. I suggested most of the scenes, but when you’re in a workshop like that there’s a lot of give and take. But the work was always focused on developing the script.

We were writing the screenplay while we were doing the workshops. The kids know better than I do what it’s like to be in school. They‘re the experts. So are the teachers, and we did workshops with them, too. So, we gave them the opportunity to influence the script with their ideas and their language, and they contributed quite a lot. But, the final decisions about casting weren’t made and announced until just a few days before shooting began.

MERIN: How much improvisation did you use while shooting the film?

CANTET: I don‘t remember at this point. When we filmed, I relied on Francois in some ways to direct the scene from within it. He’s a film critic and understands where the scene has to go. In a way, he was like me being inside the film. It was an unusual and wonderful situation.

The kids also knew what points they had to make in a scene and if they had a pivotal line to deliver, and they did it. We shot with three cameras to capture the reality of the classroom. Now and again, I’d see something was missing. We’d stop shooting, I’d give a bit of direction and we’d do it again.

I wanted this film to be authentic. I wanted audiences to never be sure if they were watching fiction or a documentary. I think that’s the quality we achieved.

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