Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
This film was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last year, there are people on the IMDB boards praising it for being an inspiring story and huge numbers of critics seem to love the film on Rotten Tomatoes too. I am absolutely gobsmacked. I don't normally criticise a film on moral grounds. I most often judge a film based on entertainment value and anything else is beyond my interest (though for the record, this isn't that entertaining anyway). But I guess there's always an exception, right?
It has become a well-recognised cliché for films to show a teacher inspiring their pupils. What's worse, such films generally give such an unrealistic representation of teaching that even people with little understanding of the profession can easily recognise how ludicrously the practice of teaching is being portrayed.
Still, even a film about teaching can still be inspiring for other reasons. I'll fully admit that, while not exactly blown away, I was quite happily entertained as a teenager by "Dangerous Minds" starring Michelle Pfeiffer. (Though I don't think even Danny DeVito, as awesome as he is, could save "Renaissance Man".)
Monsieur Lazhar is about a man who steps in to teach a primary school class when the previous teacher has recently committed suicide; by hanging herself in the classroom, no less. The new teacher, it is quickly revealed, is an asylum seeker, who wishes to seek permanent residence in Canada (Quebec in particular) because of a threat to his life back in Algeria.
Before I go into the problems with "Monsieur Lazhar" I should first admit a couple of elements I am not fully familiar with. When Mr. Lazhar is teaching French, the children initially complain that he is teaching an ancient version of the language. There are definite cultural boundaries between Mr. Lazhar's Algerian background and the culture of the children in Quebec. This is also seen in Mr. Lazhar's food preferences, his reaction to a school play with references to colonial history, and at one point Mr. Lazhar even falsely claims that he cannot dance because the style of dancing he knows would seem out of place and strange. There is also reference to the difficulties within Algeria itself, though this is much more limited.
With my ignorance on Algerian and Quebecois cultural differences and politics acknowledged, there are a few things I DO know:
1. Schools have strong security concerns and with good reason. If a man walks off the street he will not be allowed to wander through the school to the headmistress without someone at reception informing her first. If he turns up randomly in her office unannounced there will be strong concerns about how he got there and very little interest in taking his details for a job vacancy. The staff at reception will be perfectly capable of receiving CVs and directing teachers to their job application process.
2. If a teacher has died in the school, she will have had friends among the staff. For a new teacher to consistently and regularly blame her for mentally scarring the children by having the audacity to commit suicide in the school, this will be rightly viewed as rude, insensitive and wholly inappropriate. It is not bold and courageous to speak ill of the dead, particularly when you are speculating about someone you know nothing about while surrounded by their mourning friends.
3. Snide remarks to the counsellor employed by the school to help the students deal with their grief are not only unproductive and rude, but are completely misplaced. A counsellor has no choice over whether or not she does the job she is employed to do. If Mr. Lazhar was so concerned about the counsellor's methods and the time she allocated to the children, he should have addressed his concerns to the school management that employed her rather than muttering negative remarks.
4. Any teacher entering the school will be thoroughly checked before they begin working at the school. Unsurprisingly any member of staff who is to be left in charge of a group of young vulnerable children needs a thorough background check first. To be fair, the film is accurate enough to recognise that if the headteacher hired a member of staff without the appropriate checks, her job would be forfeit as a result of that oversight. But the idea of a teacher being employed without checks into their suitability for the job is so absurd as to be pure fantasy.
5. I cannot express this strong enough. A teacher should never, and I really do mean never, hit a student around the back of the head. (Yes Mr. Lazhar does this. No, he receives no comeuppance, nor does the film expect us to think any less of him for hitting a child.)
Just in case anyone is thinking of random exceptions to the rule, such as self defence (even if attacked by a really large pupil, the back of the head? Really?), let me make the context completely clear. The child was sitting in their chair, they were not misbehaving in any way and, consistently with the class discussion and without interrupting anyone else, they made a comment. The comment was not to the teacher's liking, so he hit him round the back of the head. - There is absolutely NO excuse.
Why am I making such a fuss over this? Because the main political point of this film is not the treatment of asylum seekers, nor the situation in Algeria, nor even the cultural differences between Algeria and Quebec. No, the main point on which the movie "Monsieur Lazhar" intends to rally the audience is in opposition to the rule that teachers must never touch their pupils. I AM NOT EVEN KIDDING.
We even hear one of the teachers within the school giving an anecdote about how their child was sunburnt during a summer camp because the teacher in charge was not allowed to apply sunscreen to any of the children. You know to whom the rule against touching DOESN'T apply? Other children! And any teacher with any sense would know full well that the children could apply sunscreen to each other and direct them accordingly.
In a climactic moment in "Monsieur Lazhar" a young child asserts clearly and emphatically that he does not like to be hugged. Mr. Lazhar's immediate response is to put his arms around the child and run his fingers through the child's hair. This is supposed to be a deeply emotional moment, but for me it made clearer than ever that this man should not be a teacher. He gives unwanted physical contact to children and even hits them. He is not even remotely an inspiring figure and yet the film wants you to think of him as such and some audiences have somehow bought into it.
I can understand how an ordinary person might think that teachers hugging children who are upset might be a good thing. However, there are very good reasons why teachers are not allowed to do so and in the end it is for the children's protection.
It is even strongly suggested within the film that the suicidal teacher killed herself because of one pupil's accusation that she kissed him (when all she really did was hug him, which was also against the rules). I don't normally react so strongly against the moral sentiments of a film, but this really stepped over a line in the sand for me. The main message of this film is that teachers should be free to touch their pupils and that this is only ruined by lying children who will make things up. A teacher is not a parent, they have no need to hug the children in their care and the benefits of this "no touching" rule in preventing child abuse far outweigh any possible benefits.
"Monsieur Lazhar" is a disgusting film and I resent its very existence.