Wisdom On The Street, Teachers On The Screen

in 48th Toronto International Film Festival

by Jenni Zylka

Sometimes you can find wisdom on the street: The deliberately wobbly slogan “Education is important. But beer is importanter” is emblazoned on a display outside a bar on King Street, right in the heart of the Toronto International Film Festival. And regardless of whether the message stops you from going to one of the local cinemas to have a drink instead, every passerby understands that education is necessary to avoid such mistakes, even when they’re only jokes.

Perhaps that is why a striking number of contributions at this year’s TIFF deal in one way or another with the topic of educational outreach. One encounters teachers, coaches, and their specific relationship with certain students in debut films such as The Teacher, Backspot, and Without Air from the Discovery program; in Alexander Payne’s great and soulful 1970 tragicomedy The Holdovers, in Taika Waititi’s thigh-slapping screwball Next Goal Wins, in Ilker Catak’s award-winning, sensitive psychodrama The Teacher’s Room, and in many more.

In Farah Nabulsi’s The Teacher we experience the classic type of teacher in a challenging environment: In the midst of the sometimes bloody fighting in Palestine, high school teacher Basem El-Saleh (Saleh Bakri) suffers from the loss of his son. When the home of two of his students, Adam and Yacoub, is destroyed by squatters, Basem gradually takes on a kind of fatherly role and stands up for his students’ families. At the same time, an American diplomat is trying to stop the kidnapping of his son by a Palestinian resistance group; in return, the group demands that 1,000 imprisoned Palestinians be released. The British social worker Lisa (Imogen Potts) also becomes involved in the events. And her professional distance shrinks the more she gets to know the grumpy but attractive teacher, although it becomes increasingly clear that Basem is actually more entangled in the story….

This committed film portrays the “teacher” as a reliable moral guiding figure. The director relies so much on the “good” in him and his people that, despite many impressive images and the atmospheric depiction of a shattered country, the film pits the “good guys” against the “bad guys” too much: Basem as a character becomes devoid of any ambivalence. As a teacher, he is a role model, protector, and confidant—and of course quickly becomes the love interest for the surprisingly affectionate British woman. Due to the didacticism that can be felt in every scene, The Teacher loses a lot of its political and cinematic impact.

In the Hungarian contribution Without Air, a teacher, Ana Bauch (Ágnes Krasznahorkai), also struggles with a political system: the popular educator teaches literature at a provincial public school. She observes and encourages her students sensitively and empathetically; her methods are modern and, in the opinion of some of the staff, unorthodox. When she recommends the film Total Eclipse by Agnieszka Holland to the students as an inspiration for understanding poetry, it is an affront to some parents. That film deals with the love affair between the poets Artur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine in the 19th century. The parents complain, demanding that any “propaganda” of these “unnatural” ways of life be stopped and that Ana vacate her post. Ana’s superior, who initially seemed to be on her side, is increasingly giving in. And Ana has to decide whether she wants to fight and possibly become unemployed as a consequence—or whether loyalty to her classes and her commitment as a teacher is more important to her.

The Hungarian director Katalin Moldovai is very precise in her portrayal—and she doesn’t exaggerate: Homosexuality is a punishable offense in Hungary under the right-wing populist President Viktor Orbán, and for two years it has even been forbidden to educate children about it. Moldovai tells the story slowly and almost defiantly, tightening the noose around her protagonist’s neck. Although Ana is almost as morally impeccable as her Palestinian colleague Basem, she has retained far more ambivalence as a person and therefore appears more believable.

Ilker Catak’s The Teacher’s Lounge lets its main character, the young teacher Carla (Leonie Benesch), fail even more clearly due to moral requirements, and tells a lucid, intertwined spiral of mistrust. Carla just wants to do everything right: After a series of thefts in a German school, the teacher tries to catch the culprit, without discriminating against anyone because of misplaced suspicion. However, her methods are perceived as questionable—and the more she tries to educate, the more difficult it seems to achieve fair treatment. The Teacher’s Lounge, formally almost a (teacher’s room) chamber play, is symbolic of the victim and perpetrator discourses of our time, and masterfully manages to question both the teacher’s function as a moral authority and with it, the compassion to explain and defend. The fact that Catak addresses a universal question with his drama, despite its clear location in a German city, makes the film one of the most convincing of the year.

The rockhard cheerleading coach Eileen (Evan Rachel Wood) in D.W. Waterson’s coming-of-age drama Backspot is only a supporting character—the film’s actually about the relationship and the free-swimming attempts of the two young, ambitious cheerleaders Riley (Devery Jacobs) and Amanda (Kudakwashe Rutendo). But Eileen becomes the center of the action because Riley in particular seems to be struggling between precarity, parental problems, and physical disorders, and cannot expect any mercy from Eileen. The director tells her story full of verve, music, flying cameras, and equally flying bodies. She falls so much in love with the energy of the film and its world that at some point the narrative slips through her clasped hands like a cheerleading figure—and the resolution comes all too surprisingly around the corner.

In Taika Waititi’s loud and extra-funny soccer comedy Next Goal Wins, it is the soccer coach who has the most to learn: through his involvement with the friendly, plump-but-sporty amateur soccer players on the island of American Samoa and their spiritual approach to sport, at some point he questions his entire system of ambition.

But there are also teachers like Professor Hunham (Paul Giamatti): know-it-all, cranky, permeated by the belief in the superiority of humanistic education—peppered with Latin and Greek—over all human weaknesses and conditions. And not free from a certain contempt for those under his charge. Alexander Payne has created a beautiful, highly funny and touching tragicomedy with this long-known teacher figure: Hunham has to spend the Christmas holidays in 1970 in the snowy boarding school to look after the few unfortunate students who can’t go home. Next to him, the only people left in the stately, abandoned school building are the smart, lanky and rebellious 15-year-old teenager Angus (Dominic Sessa in his first film role) and the kitchen manager Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who lost her own son, one of the few Black students, in the Vietnam War.

The three form a kind of forced “holy family” that is characterized by Hunham’s annoyingly didactic nature and secret alcoholic excesses, Angus’s seething aggressiveness—which is linked to family trauma—and Mary’s wise powers of observation. All three have tasks to complete and heroic journeys that Payne has dedicatedly assigned to them. Payne loves his characters—even the dogmatic and stubborn teacher—and he manages to make you learn to love them within minutes, too, so that you’re happy when Angus growls an “Alea Jacta Est” to his stupid professor before he does something forbidden—which is simply against an outdated rule anyway.

Maybe that’s why the teacher is a particularly popular character in the current film: he represents a person who defends or stabilizes certain systems. This is where his attractive ambivalence as a film character lies. After all: How are you supposed to seriously stabilize a system that is broken, as is so often the case in the world at the moment?

Jenni Zylka
Edited by Robert Horton