Breakfast with Master of the Classe
An interview with Carine May, co-director of Master of the Classe
Why did you want to write and direct a film about a school teacher?
I’m a school teacher. I taught for about ten years and I had plenty of material! We really wanted to talk about teachers – not the way we usually see them portrayed, but by making them more human, in other words with their failings, especially when they’re thrown into a class with no preparation, and when the national education system is crumbling. It also allowed us to go behind the scenes of a job that everyone has rubbed up against in one way or another!
How did you conceive the students and why did you want to show the multilingualism of this class in particular?
UPEAA classes [classes for newly-arrived non-French speakers] are very important and are becoming rarer because they cost too much. Children have one year to learn the basics of French. There are children from different countries all together. So obviously it’s a delicate task for the teacher, and first-time teachers sometimes get stuck there… We wanted to put our main character in as difficult a situation as possible which allowed us to feel sorry for him, a little, despite his weaknesses. But we also wanted to use children to talk about all those mixed neighborhoods, exile seen through their eyes.
How did you work with the children?
We didn’t rehearse much. On the other hand, we did a lot of takes, especially for the scenes with rapid-fire back-and-forth verbal exchanges. Sébastien Chassagne, who plays Berry, really played along and everyone felt right at home quite naturally. The difficult thing is that the children, who were mostly French, obviously spoke very good French. They sometimes had a hard time finding their words in Tamil or Chinese. Between takes, in voice-over, we had to teach them how to speak Tamil. And once they got rolling, the instructor would say, “Not in Tamil, in French!!!” It was definitely difficult to navigate fiction and reality!
Did you do any research on the schools where substitute teachers are sent?
I still have a lot of friends who are former colleagues, so I’m well informed. And in Seine-Saint-Denis, all the schools are like that!
What interested you about the competitiveness among teachers?
I would say it’s more of an individualistic side to some rather than a competitive side. Most of them work in difficult conditions, and some are worn out by mentoring new teachers, every year, over and over. The “teacher’s lounge” was a great place for gathering stories. Just like by any water cooler in any office, really, but with one special feature: it’s the only profession where some people have never left their school desks!
Lastly, why did you want to work around an anti-hero who is faced with the difficulties of this job, rather than work around a teacher “hero” who is personally invested and is faced with the same problems and pressures?
There are lots and lots of movies about heroes of National Education. We weren’t interested in heroes. Our earlier films often talk about losers or downtrodden people who fight just to make it. That interests us because it brings out the failings that we all have, indecision, weakness… It’s all human. But teaching is considered an untouchable profession: you’re taking care of a child so it must be your calling. Not at all, or at least that’s no longer the case. Not for everyone! So we had fun putting a character who exercises that profession through the works… At the same time, we’re talking about current society, work conditions in lower-class neighborhoods where public schools are not the same as in the nice neighborhoods, obviously, and where everyone does the best they can.
What sort of freedom would you say the short format allows?
Of course, just like for all the others. One might be the freedom to change registers in the scene at the police station. Or taking our time to place things at the beginning of the film…
If you’ve already been to Clermont-Ferrand, could you share with us an anecdote or story from the festival? If not, what are your expectations for this year?
I’ve been coming here since I was a teenager because my cousins were students at Clermont and they took me along. Since then, we’ve come every year. It’s MY film date of the year – I go to the talks in the Salle Chavignier, I try to see all the films in the International Competition… There’s an amazing wealth of stuff.
Master of the Classe is being shown in National Competition F4
and a discussion will be held at the Le Rio cinema on Tuesday 6 February at 2pm.