Un film dramatique is a well-intentioned study, but falls into something of a paternalistic trap in presentation.
In general, films about childhood, pedagogy and learning present a tricky proposition for filmmakers — they tend to invite the adult’s tendency to condescend, idealize, infantilize, or otherwise represent a child’s world as other than it is. French artist Éric Baudelaire’s Locarno premiere Un film dramatique is no exception. Made over four years with a group of students from the Dora Maar middle school in Saint-Denis, the film is a collaborative document of its own making — though there’s also the question of what, exactly, Baudelaire is actually attempting to do. The title gestures towards the question, and the film itself goes some way to answering it, observing as the students grapple with this very question and eventually take ownership of the movie, transforming from active subjects to veritable co-authors. There’s also a political throughline that emerges in the students’ lively, frank discussions of racism, immigration, and prejudice — grounded in the specificities of living in less well-to-do Parisian suburbs.
Conceptually, then, there’s much to admire — but the project’s nobility notwithstanding, it makes for a rather dull, diffuse viewing experience. One the one hand, Baudelaire does indeed allow his subjects to take center stage. On the other, his editing tends to emphasize a Kids Say the Darndest Things-esque fascination. Although it differs from Un film dramatique in its setting, Approaching the Elephant — Amanda Rose Wilder’s 2014 documentary about an American free school — avoided the usual traps of films about childhood, generating interest and tension though not just through its judicious editing, but also its essentially Rorschachian form. Baudelaire, by contrast, defaults to mild-mannered approbation towards his subjects — which, though well-intended, is paternalism of a different sort.
Originally published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 7: Wavelengths Program.