Till now, French writer-director François Bégaudeau has been known to art-house audiences for three sterling imports with a pronounced social conscience: Human Resources, Time Out, and Heading South. But there's a likelihood he'll reach his widest American audience with The Class, the 2008 winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes and France's 2009 nominee for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. I spoke to Cantet at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel.
Groucho: First, I liked the film very much.
Laurent Cantet: Oh. That's a good way to start.
G: (Laughs.) Just to put that out there. You seem as a director to approach drama from a sociological perspective, as much interested in the systems and the organizations and the politics as their impact on the characters: is that fair to say?
LC: Yeah. I think it's close to what I feel. Except that I always try not to build some sort of theory out of it.
G: Or to impose a point of view.
LC: Or to impose--I mainly try to show the complexity of the world, and the questions that are asked to all the characters. And so of course those questions don't often have one answer. They can have many, many answers or no answers. And I prefer to leave the questions of the film open so that the spectators can think of it after.
G: And how did you settle into that approach? How did you develop that that would be your style?
LC: I don't think it was preconceived; it was just my interest in life, also. I'm someone who is--who feel involved in what's happening around him. I'm not militant in a real sense of the term, but I always try to understand what's happening around. I'm reading all the papers I can read; I am talking a lot with people. I feel part of that society and involved in it. And my films reflect that.
G: They're a natural outgrowth of how you see the world.
G: Would you say this film qualifies as docudrama?
LC: In fact, for me, it's "real fiction." Because we rebuilt everything. The children are not themselves. Some of the dialogues come from improvisation, others from the book, but even the improvisation, the improvised dialogues have been replayed many times to be more and more precise. And so there was nothing that was really the reality itself. And I like to rebuild the reality just because I think it allows the actors to give the image they would like to have. So it's a way to--
G: Early takes, they might be trying too hard. The more you replay it, the more natural it seems?
LC: Yes. Because when we edit the film, we can mix the first take that was very improvised and the last one that was really recreated, replayed, many times, and they had the same energy, the same tension, in all the takes.
G: What is the key to finding an organic drama? I know you don't want to push an emotional agenda or a philosophical agenda, but at some point it has to have some narrative shape, so how do you discover that in the process?
LC: It was the first thing that I wrote, in fact, for this film. Even before meeting François, even before reading the book, I wrote the story of Soulemain, which is the narrative line of the whole film. And the first scene I even wrote was the scene with his mother [before] the disciplinary council. And I wrote, I remember, he has to translate, "She says that I am a good boy," which is something that I think really cruel for him. He is trying to look like a tough guy, and his mother says, "So my son is such a good boy." And the film started on that, and I built the story of Soulemain. And then I met François and read his book and decided that his book would give me the flesh of the film, all the documentary material that I needed for it.
G: Since that scene came up and that was the kernel for you, let's talk about that a little: that tension of what to do with the "problem student." I teach myself, and my parents are teachers, like yours. Even at a Catholic school, there's on one hand preaching forgiveness, and all of these students are part of the family, but there's also a certain line that, if they cross it, they get cut loose. I guess there is no answer to this problem, but what did you learn about how a public school deals with that issue, in your year there?
LC: I think that François is a good image of that. François is an idealist who would like to have sort of an equal-to-equal dialogue to each of his students, who would like to let school integrate all of the children, that school would save someone like Soulemain, and who is always trying to keep Soulemain in the classroom. And at the same time, the system, and maybe his own survival--
G: Survival instinct, yeah.
LC: Instinct tells him that he has to react, and it's a real moral dilemma for him. And I think that this contradiction [is] between a school that is at the same time inclusive--a way to include people in the society--and also a system that excludes a lot of them, that sorts between the good and the bad, you know. It's something very difficult to live for each student and teacher.
G: I wanted to talk about that element of exclusion. Obviously there are a lot of positive elements we see in the school as well, those graceful moments--
G: But how do you see the element of exclusion? Do you think it's a matter of cultural exclusion, the tradition, the pedagogical traditions the school is based on, that there's a way things are done, and if a student doesn't meet with that, they're excluded?
LC: I think it's something like that, but I think school has different missions. One of the missions is to build, let's say, citizens who can have their place in the world, in society. And I think there is a domestication--that when you go out of a school, you have to behave like society wants you to behave. And this part of the job is not something gratifying. But teachers have to do it, and maybe it's necessary, I don't know. Politically speaking, I wouldn't accept it very easily, but I have to admit I've been socialized by school too.
G: About the teachers--real teachers playing teachers--did they ever chafe at the process and find it difficult, or learn more about themselves than they might have wished to learn?
LC: You should ask them, but--
G: From your point of view.
LC: I know that some of them told me that it helped them to think of what they were doing in their job and maybe change a little bit their way of being in front of a class. But I think that most of those who accepted to involve themselves in the film were already people who had these kinds of reflections on their job and were quite open-minded teachers.
G: Do you have a sense of the kinds of teachers your parents were, and the kind of environment they were working in, as opposed to today?
LC: So my parents were, how do you say, were for a very modern way of--
LC: Yeah, progressive. They were members of some groups of teachers who would really think about the way they should work. And it was sometimes not very easy for them to fit with the system. So I heard a lot about that when I was a kid, I think. And that's maybe helped me to make the film, sure.
G: Looking at the time in which they were teaching and the time now--
LC: Yes, that changed a lot. Especially because we were living in a small city, in Provence, you know. And the society was much quieter than it is now. And also we--I remember the class I was in, you know? And it was more--we were all coming from the same background: white, middle-class students. My father was a teacher in a class for children who had problems in school, and so he was confronted to very tough situations. And now all the children until they are fifteen, until they arrive in the high school, share the same class. And I think that really changed a lot of things for those who would have been in special classes, sure, because it makes them share experiences they would never [have] had before. And also for, let's say, for "good" students, or for white students, for example, who have to face with other ways of thinking [about] the world, other experiences of life. And I think my children, for example, are much more open-minded than I was at their age, just because they had to face other experiences of life.
G: And something that François talks about in talking about the democracy of his style of teaching is that you gain something, and you lose something by empowering the students: you lose perhaps some of the control--
G: Of course, by nature--not necessarily a bad thing, but there's a trade-off. Do you think the students are much more empowered today, or is it just a different way of handling them?
LC: I think that they are socially so stigmatized that, to exist, you have to stress strongly, and it's more defensive than anything else, I think. And that's also why François is so patient with them. I think he understands that very well.
G: Some would argue that that style is Socratic to a fault. And I gather that there's been some conservative backlash against his book and, I suppose, the film now.
G: Can you talk a little bit about how the film has been viewed and what the debate has been outside of the film, or in the press?
LC: The main detractors of the film have been teachers. It doesn't mean that all the teachers were against the film, but some of them spoke a lot in the newspapers against the film, against the message, François' message. Because, first, they didn't want to recognize themselves in that school, that teaching way. And maybe because they couldn't recognize, because they were teachers in better neighborhoods or easier schools. So some of them didn't want to show that to parents, either, because they were afraid to frighten the parents. And also I think they took the film like a documentary film. And thought of it as a reality. I just tried to show what can happen between people like that. I tried to show the real--the school like it is. It's just an example. I would never try to build the perfect teacher, or model.
G: Yeah, it's a slice of life.
LC: Yes, but the teachers saw the film like a mirror.
G: Like the only story there is, of school. I think that pays you a compliment, in that the film is such a "fly on the wall" experience, taking you inside walls, that it does seem you're sitting in a corner.
LC: Yeah, we paid the price of the success of the film, too. Yeah, yeah.
G: To what degree was the film made in the editing room? Is there a lot of cut footage?
LC: Yes. We had 150 hours of rushes, so we had to cut a lot. But in fact, I don't think we built a lot of things in editing. We just tried to respect the energy of each dialogue. And to rebuild the sort of real-time feeling, of the--
G: Of the rhythm of the school year.
LC: Yes. But it was just to find the best moment of the scene; it was not rebuilding everything. I think for me everything is happening on the shooting.
G: I'm curious, too: I know that before you began basically the one-year process with the school and the students and the teachers, you had an initital scenario that you worked from. I wonder how closely that corresponds to the finished product.
LC: It was not a finished script. It was just the first ideas of--
G: An outline.
LC: Yes. It was Soulemain's story. And all the rest came after that, from the book and from the workshop we made with the children.
G: Maybe this isn't entirely accurate, but it seems that the teachers are, to some degree, playing themselves, whereas--
LC: Not really. For Fred, the one who is opposed to François, really built the character, because we needed this guy.
G: For dramatic purposes.
LC: He doesn't have this kind of ideal, I think.
G: I guess on both sides--the students and the teachers--you need to serve those initial ideas from the book.
LC: Right, the book was not modeled for us.
G: But there were certain ideas that were in there that you wanted to make sure were in the film.
LC: Yeah, but with François we decided that the book proposed some situations, and that we were going to see how this situation could go with a person that would act in the film. It was not "We are going to adapt it precisely."
G: About François Bégaudeau: was there ever any thought to casting an actor in that role, or did you always feel confident that that was going to work?
LC: No, in fact I really wanted to make it with non-traditional actors, with real teachers. And since one of the points that really interested me in the film was the teacher's character, this character, this teacher, and since this teacher was François, it was much easier to ask him to play his own part rather than find another teacher that could play the part. Especially because I wanted to improvise even during the shooting. And it was very comfortable for me to have François improvising with the children, because I knew he knew exactly what the teacher was expecting, and also of course that he was going to be like a teacher in his class...someone who tries to make the children say what he is trying to teach them.
G: Did he have any apprehension? Did he hesitate?
LC: Not really. I think he understood very clearly himself that it was the best way to make the film.
G: It's borne out--he does a great job. About the French title, as opposed to the English title: "Between the Walls" is the direct translation. For one thing, it suggests that idea of going inside the private place, but to me it also connotes the box: maybe thinking inside the box, the confinment of that system.
G: It's left for the viewer to decide, obviously. You don't press any point of view, but did that year spent within those walls suggest to you any potential reforms that would be good for a school to consider?
LC: Well, what I'm quite sure of, and I was already convinced of it before, is that if you don't give sense to what children are doing here, they won't learn anything. And if it's completely cut [off] from their own experience, if it's just coming in school to receive knowledge that will come from above [them], and that [they] have to learn, I think school is missing its calling.
G: You've also talked about how the school functions as a microcosm for what's going on outside in the greater society. Can you talk a little bit about some points of comparison that you saw?
LC: (Long pause.) Yes, I think that these children are learning to argue. And they are learning to--they are trying to be an adult. And I think that's already in this place sort of an image of what growing up means. What was interesting also was to show that all the political environment can reflect in the school. And that the school walls are not closed to it. And that's also why I wanted to have this story of Wei's mother, who will be maybe deported to China. Because most of the schools have been confronted to such situations, in France. And also because it shows that you can't imagine that passing through the door is enough for the children to forget all the problems they have outside. And I think that schools have to take these problems in account.
G: Ignoring them at their own peril.
G: Talking of being slaves to the larger social system, your film Time Out dealt with economic crisis on a personal level, and now of course, that's even more relevant. Do you have a sense or perspective on how the world is handling this economic crisis, and what we're in for?
LC: I'm sure that proved one thing: that the system is not as auto-regulated as people want us to believe. And I think that could be one subject that I would like to explore in my next film: these sort of abstractions. You know, the stock exchange and all of these things have real influence on people's lives. And I think that's maybe a point that could be one of my next films: if I don't know what will be my next project, I think it could have something to do with it.
G: Yeah, there's certainly fertile ground there...thank you.
LC: Thank you.