The well-being of a society is often linked to the effectiveness of its institutions in providing access to health care, education and opportunity for its communities. Assessing the emotional state of young people in an educational system is an insightful measure of how well a society is functioning. More specifically, a school environment can be a microcosm for the adult world, as well as for the future of humanity. Schools were created to help children grow into curious students, turning them into motivated educators when they graduate. However, knowing firsthand as a public school teacher, observing students in a classroom to understand how they perceive the world and how they fit into its puzzle is not so effective; instead, examining students’ interactions and how they socialize outside of a classroom machine exposes a society’s failures.
In privileged functioning communities, the powerful experience of being an impressionable child in a school is a collective experience. Belgian screenwriter-director Laura Wander and his first feature film Playground (A world) immerses the audience in a familiar, yet hostile, school environment that strangely acts as an origin story for a flawed adult world. This school setting asks audiences to reflect on past school-related trauma or even their own fabricated fictionalized memories of their youth in 68 focused minutes.
The film begins to hover at 7-year-old Nora’s eye level with an absurdly brilliant performance by Maya Vanderbeque, who is in front of the doors of his new school and does not want to leave the comfortable cocoon of his family. She sobs and confides in her brother Abel (astonishing performance by Gunter Duret), who comforts her but is inevitably interrupted by their father (Karim Leklou). The mess of Playground follows and is carried by its tight camerawork, sharp editing, sound mixing, teacher-student relationship and, ultimately, what the film’s educational text suggests about society.
The film begins with the use of a hovering camera that acts as a character in its own right, using mid and insert shots of Nora going through her first days of school. Those tricky angles and helpful cinematographer frames Frederic Noirhomme prohibit viewers from finding solace in a larger setting. The tighter shots create tension that allows an active audience to infer what’s happening outside of Nora’s perspective. The audience, now like Nora, focuses on investigating the norms and taboos of this school, as it acts as a reflection of the adult world. There’s something dark about watching Nora’s journey in and out of the classroom, as she depicts people surveying their vulnerable environment and its expectations. As a teacher, it’s clear that students are nervous in schools as they examine the power dynamics of student and staff hierarchies, as well as the centralized machinery of a school. And as a result of these steep and mostly inefficient hierarchies within these machines, some students go wild and many more leave. This is where the camera becomes vital to this film, as it captures every expression of Nora as she searches for her identity, as students like her grapple with the decision to survive socially through the frightening landscape of a anarchic hallway between classes, hectic cafeterias, and an anarchic playground.
Editor Nicholas Rupl adds to the anxiety-inducing camera movements and frames with cutaways that evoke a similar haze of the audience’s memories of school. The cuts between Nora’s assimilation into a chaotic school and her impossible expectations of her in the face of seductive peer pressure from students already toxically socialized quickly become too stimulating for her and the audience. Watching Nora walk scarily and fall off a balance beam that jumps on her trying to make conversation with her peers and therefore find community at this school perfectly embodies the volatility of a student’s experience at school. school, as well as an adult in most social settings. One moment a student can be exposed and helpless and the next moment they can be safe and authentically themselves.
The mix of these shots and edits with the cacophony of a Belgian primary school (pupils aged 6-12) completely immerses the viewer as the soundscape intensifies alarmingly with each new sequence. The film is without a score, but that doesn’t mean the sound engineers haven’t created a work of art themselves. The meticulously crafted sounds transform the atmosphere and effectively complete an active experience for his audience. And from a teacher’s perspective, the volatile mix of sound and silence is arguably the film’s most effective and realistic decision. The sound is most authentic when the creators decide to have both Nora and Abel bullied by faceless students, who sound like whispers above the disturbing vibration noises of the rest of the student body. The true feat of sound mixing is only clear to those who have worked in a school: watching hundreds, if not thousands, of students trying to socialize at the same time is like a family dinner gone wrong and the using sound to illustrate the absurdity of children trying to communicate for an unregulated 30-45 minutes a day when they are otherwise forced into silent classrooms is brilliant.
And finally, as someone trying to meet the impossible demands of the American education system, it was an incredibly moving experience to watch the growing mentorship between young teacher Agnès (Laura Verlinden) and Nora. The subtle juxtaposition of Agnes and veteran teachers is extraordinarily well done. Agnes depicts a fresh new teacher juggling three to four job responsibilities as she mentors Nora one-on-one, as we’re supposed to assume there are plenty of Nora-type students out there for Agnes. And then you have the veteran teachers, who also juggle those jobs and the needs of the students, but who are about to be destroyed by the system, soon unresponsive to the school’s problems. Knowing first-hand five years of experience as a high school teacher, mentors like Agnes reluctantly leave education because the demands of their jobs are their own playground.
Wandel speaks of schools and classrooms as inefficient machines and the resulting anarchy of playgrounds. The objective of Playground is to work as an analogy between a failing education system and a failing work system. The lives of students and staff are intertwined with the lives of a frustrated and overwhelmed working class.
Playground succeeds in suggesting ways in which the students of these schools reflect contemporary society and the future dysfunctions of humanity. The barbaric limits and old restrictions of these machines without serious updates and upgrades can become a prison for everyone involved. Students are told that they are in schools to become empathetic and inquisitive critical thinkers, but they are disturbed by their surroundings. Teachers are also confused, as their role has been reduced to a cog in an ineffective school system. Playground intelligently does not enter into a social commentary on what can be changed in schools, such as being funded fairly and paying its staff properly; instead, the story challenges its audience to consider the periphery of every moment for Nora, hopefully prompting a viewer to question whether they really want the best for young people and society at large. Wandel lets the comments speak for themselves through Playgrounds final shot of Nora consoling Abel with a hug so tight it’s worth a thousand words.