Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Two and half films

Despite the war and the need to protest, and before traveling to Jordan, I had a few opportunities to spend some quality time with my mother. That usually means driving her to the doctor (and in one case, the ER; she’s all right now), going with her to IKEA – and other furniture stores – and an occasional trip to the movies. If memory serves me right, we saw three films. The first was a new Israeli feature called hakol matxil bayam ‘It All Begins at Sea.’ It is a tender family drama, which could have been set anywhere in the world really, except it is set in Ashkelon, one of the cities at which – a day or two after we saw the film – Hamas began aiming some of its rockets in retaliation for the criminal acts of the Israeli government. I actually remember the chills I felt when they announced these firings on the news. Ashkelon has usually been a quiet town, far from the spotlights, and here I was, within days, watching a movie set there and then hearing about it on the news.

But I really wanted to write about two other films we saw in Tel Aviv. One of them I had wanted to see as soon as I saw the previews for it at one of the Ritz theaters in Philadelphia. The original title is Entre les murs ‘Between the Walls’, though in English it’s distributed as The Class. The second is an American film called The Visitor.

I knew much more about the premise of the French film than about the American one. It’s set in an inner-city Paris school, in which immigrants and offspring of immigrants outnumber ethnic French kids. It follows their homeroom and French teacher, an attractive thirty-something single guy (of course both the students and yours truly wondered whether he was gay; I won’t spoil it for you with an answer to that question), who was not really trained or mentally prepared for such a diverse – and critical – audience. What I didn’t know about The Visitor was that it, too, revolved around a teacher, or rather a professor in a small college, and that there was some (a lot, in fact) of Middle Eastern content in it.

So both Entre les murs and The Visitor turned out to be very relevant to my own life. And while the protagonists of both films were very different from one another, I couldn’t help but finding bits and pieces of myself in both of them.

At first glance, Entre les murs promises to be yet another To Sir, with Love or Lean on Me. I, however, was relieved to see very little trace of Sidney Poitier or Morgan Freeman in the character of François (actor/co-writer François Bégaudeau). I have nothing against either of the two educational maverick precursor movies, but To Sir is a classic that was good for its time and place, and one Lean was enough. What we see in Entre is the real deal. My mother commented after the credits were over – virtually all the characters share the first names of their respective actors – that it was almost a documentary. We’ve all heard about racial and ethnic tensions in Western Europe, but few of us – in Israel or the US – have had the chance to be the flies on the walls of these tense communities. Entre allowed us a shot at that.

Entre also “keeps it real” by depicting a non-heroic teacher. Some kids like and respect him; others hate his guts; many others couldn’t give a damn. He’s intelligent, has good instincts and responds with wit and respect to his students’ mischief and skepticism, but also gets himself and others in trouble doing the clumsy things that most of us might easily find ourselves doing under pressure. Watching him, I kept waiting for the magic moment in which he’d shine in all his glory and win the proverbial Teacher-of-the-year trophy, but was delighted never to witness such a development.

The Visitor is perhaps a bit more complex. Just this week I had brief discussions about it with two colleagues. With Susan Dicklitch, who teaches a course at F&M titled Human Rights/Human Wrongs, dealing extensively with the issue of political asylum, the title of the movie came up, since it, too, has asylum at its core (or one of its cores). Alan Caniglia, who is a senior associate dean of the faculty at F&M, brought the movie up while we were riding a van from a workshop we attended last weekend at Gettysburg College. The focus of the discussion with him was the personality of the professor (played exquisitely by Richard Jenkins of Six Feet Under fame; he was the dead father).

One of the opening scenes reminded me how ridiculous we can be with all our rules and regulations. A timid student enters the professor’s office with a late paper. The professor refuses to accept it. The student “reminds” the professor that he has yet to distribute the syllabus for the class. “I know,” replies the professor. Plagiarism comes up, at least covertly, when the professor reluctantly agrees to present a paper that carries his name as a co-author, even though his junior colleague had written it all by herself. Somehow we (well, not all of us) allow ourselves the luxury of this double standard. Until we realize we’re hurting ourselves as much as we’re hurting our students. Hmm, do I see an analogy to the war on Gaza? The war in Iraq?

Here, too, immigrants are part of the picture –  “illegal” immigrants, in this case. I’d like to say undocumented, but it is precisely because they chose a certain form of documenting their presence in this country that poses a problem. I’ll say no more. Go rent the DVD (Alan tells me it’s on Netflix).

So there you go, two films (three if you count the prologue). If you’re a teacher or a professor or a linguist or care about human rights, I recommend you watch them. They’re both complex in their simplicity and will leave you thinking – but also feeling (my shrink would be proud of me for making this distinction) – for a long time.

Just a couple more words on translation:

  1. I would have preferred that the first film be translated ‘It All Begins at the Beach,’ though there is some merit to the current translation.
  2. I find it curious that the Israeli distributors decided to give the French film a Hebrew title faithful to the original: ben ha-kirot.
  3. The Visitor: who is visiting whom? The answer is up for grabs. Of the four main characters, any and all could be deemed as such. Hebrew suffers from a deficit in that it is a gendered language. Thus, the Hebrew ha-oreax (literally, ‘the visitor/guest–masc.’) inherently misses the point and precludes at least the two female characters from being candidates for the title role.

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