As a cinematic ode to pedagogy, directors Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch’s Miss Kiet’s Children isn’t in a league of its own. Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley and José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of Muses recently, and rapturously, immersed us in the minutia of the teaching process. Lataster and Lataster-Czisch’s documentary about traumatized child refugees trying to coexist with their Dutch schoolmates doesn’t revel, however, in the irresistible pull of erudite lectures or progressive Cali teens’ thirst for knowledge. The film is interested in the most banal of pedagogical experiences, its camera finding more than enough drama in the way a child grabs a peer’s eraser without asking, or in the subtle changes in a child’s face the moment shame becomes pride, hope becomes desperation, and the void of not knowing becomes the elation of learning how to spell the word “moon.”
There’s something about this setup that’s akin to Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have, about a schoolteacher in the Auvergne region of France and his relationship to his young students. But the adults in this film are seldom more than a recurrent voice, as the frame tends to cut off the upper half of primary schoolteacher Miss Kiet’s body. Unlike Georges Lopez, the instructor at the center of Philibert’s film, Miss Kiet seems to take no pleasure in the power she holds. Instead, she spends her time trying to distribute that power evenly among her students by teaching them how to be accountable for their actions. Camera and educator are always fair and invested in the dignity of the children. It’s difficult to say who’s the real star of the film; as Miss Kiet’s interventions are so soothing, considerate, and effective, it’s impossible to not be in complete awe of her mastery. At once acknowledging and dismissing the severity of a child’s complaint, she knows that by the time a child arrives in her classroom all she can really do is address their symptoms, not the causes for their aggression: their sleeplessness, nightmares, and inability to focus.
The film moves organically from the particularities of one child to the next. What remains constant is Miss Kiet’s sweet self-assertiveness, and the camera’s refusal to ever truly grant us establishing shots. We’re asked to make due with the children’s faces, mostly, and their minute changes as they draw, play with a magic board, rehearse a musical, recount a dream, or hear the bomb-sounding noises of a ball kicking at recess. Miss Kiet’s Children doesn’t try to sell us the image of the angelic child. Childhood in the film is the terrain of contradiction and ambiguity. At the same time that the children want to hit they also want to embrace; they want their friends to be their enemies and their enemies to be their friends. It’s hard to think of many films that have approached childhood with this much respect and with this much integrity.
Nine-year-old Haya, for instance, is a mostly mean child. She’s jealous, violent, and she lies. She takes objects away from other children who are using them; she hits her classmates during the class’s afternoon break; and she torments the new girl, Lyanne, only to pretend that it was all a big misunderstanding when she gets caught and is asked to explain herself. When we first meet the Arabic-speaking Haya, she’s weepy because she’s just fallen and her pants are now dirty and wet, and she wants someone to translate her feelings to Miss Kiet in Dutch. She goes around asking her peers to ask the teacher to call her mother because Miss Kiet “never understands me.” Every classmate sends her to another classmate who might be willing to ask for her. When one of the refugee boys who speaks better Dutch finally asks Miss Kiet to call Haya’s mother, the teacher explains that she won’t be calling the woman because falling isn’t that bad. This is Miss Kiet’s pedagogy at its most illustrative. She doesn’t dwell on the problem, doesn’t scold, and doesn’t ever raise her voice. She listens, responds, and moves on. In her classroom, a child is always heard and seen but also forced to confront the truth.
The question of language, and the ultimately unfair advantage adults tend to have in relationship to it, becomes exacerbated in the context of the film because many of the children speak Arabic but not Dutch very well. And yet it’s in Dutch that they’re called on to express themselves. At times, this means that the children suffer in silence from not being able to articulate what’s happening around them, and at other times they, specially Haya, seem to take advantage of their lack of linguistic proficiency to pretend that they aren’t to blame for their own bad deeds. It also means the Dutch children come off as uncomplicatedly joyful, and easily prone to acts of solidarity, whereas their issues may simply be less legible. The filmmakers aren’t worried about the Dutch kids, however, almost treating them as self-effacing stage helpers of scenes that are always about someone else: girls whose homes were bombed or boys who may not be as comfortable prancing around in the glittery gender-bending costumes they have to wear for the school musical.
One of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes takes place in the gym where each student, regardless of their age and gender, plays every character in the Little Red Riding Hood story. They’re each supposed to skip toward a mirror with a flower in their hand and stare at themselves as though they were someone else. Miss Kiet manages the children, some of whom are so distressed by war that they can barely sleep at night, with such grace and care as she whispers, “Look, look at yourself.” This proves to be too difficult an exercise for Jorg, from Syria, who can’t look at his face in the mirror without looking down as if he’s about to collapse. Miss Kiet insists, knowing exactly the brittleness of the child’s body she’s holding, and doing it justice. She asks if she should cry along with him, and that he should look at himself, even if he’s sad. Because one should be able to be sad and to be angry. Soon after, Jorg is alone, away from the theater game when a Dutch boy approaches him and asks what happened, as if to comfort him. Jorg doesn’t respond. Instead, he keeps looking down, as if frozen in horror, but learning how to move too.