So many “teacher films” focus on the seemingly unprecedented abilities of White teachers to successfully reach and transform those who are apparently the most unreachable students in the worst neighborhoods. These students are typically poor and non-White, as well. Such films include Music of the Heart (1999), Half Nelson (2006), and Freedom Writers (2007)–to just name a few.
“Teacher films” are frequently ruined by their use of such tropes, tropes that are nonexistent outside of fictions. White teachers are not, of course, uniquely talented, and non-White students are not uniquely in need of “saving.” Such films serve to perpetuate the White Status quo and to sort of fetishize everything counter to the White Status quo. At the same time, they minimize the real role of Privilge and Oppression.
I just finished watching Philippe Falardeau’s Canadian Monsieur Lazhar (2012). This is clearly not a Hollywood production!!
This is a “teacher film,” but the new teacher (necessary because the previous teacher committed suicide in her classroom), Bashir Lazhar, is not a Savior and is not even White. In numerous ways, he’s the one who needs saving(, too). The students don’t and can’t save him. And he can’t save them (and doesn’t even “try”). The students are also not created simply as objects for viewers and their gaze to exploit. And yet, the students and thier teacher build strong, successful relationships.
The story in Monsieur Lazhar is a beautiful one, “simple” in good ways compared to Hollywood (and with great attention given to the camera and the mise-en-scène), but it is ultimately one where isolation and sadness are big themes. It also addresses the nightmare of contemporary bureaucracies and the life and death power they hold!
I highly recommend this award-winning film. It’s in French (with English subtitles)! You can watch the trailer here.
Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda