Exploring pedagogic relationships in fiction film


Rites of passage

Dekalog: One (1988)
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski
Keywords: love

Twelve year old Paweł lives with his dad and regularly spends time with his aunt. Through them, the bright, intelligent boy is confronted with two opposing world views: the rationalist approach of his scientist father, and the strong religious faith of his aunt. Yet, both unconditionally love him and demonstrate great care in giving him a safe home. Young Paweł is not yet in the mature position of being able to define his own views. It becomes clear though that he already developed an interest in computer programming, and the promise of predictability of events through rationalist, scientific models. Eventually this type of thinking, which, for the father, functions as a rigid belief system overruling all other possible attitudes towards life, turns fatal for the boy. The father's carefully calculated prediction that the ice on the nearby lake must be strong enough to carry people ice skating turns out false. In that sense there is a moralistic undertone carrying the narrative, which can be read as a warning that a specific type of scientific worldview leads to a disavowal of the mystery and incomprehensible aspects of the world. Every belief system needs checks and balances. Perhaps the question is whether these can be developed in the language of the belief system itself? How does a belief system hold the space that is needed for an understanding of the limitations of that system? Parents (and also teachers, for that matter), don't be too certain of yourself, Kieślowski seems to suggest.
Teorema (1968)
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Keywords: care, emancipation, encounter

The mysterious visitor who enters a well off Milan household in Pasolini's Teorema lacks both past and future. He sets things in motion that perhaps were already lingering underneath the carefully cultivated upper class conformity of the protagonists. He doesn't tell them what to do, yet he helps all of them individually in unleashing their desires and finding comfort and consolation. He renders ideas unavoidable, transforming them into vocations. The visitor is nothing and everything, which positions him above the mundane, class based, socially stratified human reality in which the characters live. We're getting close to religion here.

I am intrigued by how the visitor does not bring pre-established meaning to the situation, how he does not seem to have a story of his own. He is an image, or a mirror who reflects the needs and the desires of the protagonists. He does not bring much (apart from himself), but he sets things in motion. As a pedagogue the visitor is nothing but energy.

This notion of the teacher without a cause beyond the pupil's desires is interesting, as it somehow resonates with a radical take on education as a practice of freedom. Vocation is shaped around one's most inner desires, not through the job market. In the film, meaning and bodily practice are strongly connected and perhaps one. The encounter with the transcendent presence of the visitor helps imagining a future beyond bourgeois society, although not in a sense of offering a roadmap. Ownership of the factory might be transferred to the workers, yet, besides a notion of a more just society, the unknown power, something sacred, a mystery remains.
La mala educación (2004)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Keywords: power

Film director Enrique is visited by a man who claims to be Ignacio, a friend from the time they were pupils in a catholic boarding school, bringing with him a short story based on their youth, culminating in a fictionalised reunification years later. The man, who later in the film turns out to be Ignacio's younger brother Juan, is determined to play Zahara, a transvestite, modelled on Ignacio.

The identities of the protagonists constantly shift, the two brothers, in a way, become each other. Even father Manolo, the abusive teacher from Ignacio's youth, who has resigned from church duty, re-appears later in the film. In his capacity as a well-off editor of a publishing house, his interests shift towards the younger brother, and he thus continues sexual exploitation of his position of power.

The childhood scenes set in a religious school in Franco-era Spain, the film explores many of the themes and motives that abound in the work of Almodóvar. Narratively, but also cinematographically. Visual abundance lets desire flow freely, between the characters and between the screen and the viewer. The drag queen, a recurring appearance in many of Almodóvar's film, perhaps best exemplify the theatricality of his vision. Drag offers a mask that can be moulded for and through performance. A mask, however, that does not really seem to conceal a “true” identity. The drag seems a more explicit way of showing an economy of desire that also underlies other social roles such as the priest, the publisher and the cinematographer.
Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Keywords: love, mentorship

Perhaps Jesus Christ is the ultimate pedagogue.
Wittgenstein (1993)
Director: Derek Jarman
Keywords: mentorship, study

Unusual biopic of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who developed a large part of his body of work under the tutelage of éminence grise Bertrand Russell at Cambridge University. Russell initially saw Wittgenstein as his crown prince, completing his own work on formal logic, and declaring himself his pupil's student. Later, disagreements on abstract notions such as the future of their discipline, undoubtedly affected by the differences between their characters, lead to a break.
Les Roseaux Sauvages (1994)
Director: Andre Techiné
Keywords: help, love, politics

Portraying a group of teenagers preparing for their 'bac', the French high school exams, 'Les Roseaux Sauvages' primarily explores the relationships between these almost-but-not-quite-there-yet-adults as they discover their sexuality and, more generally, life, with the Algerian War of Independence as a backdrop. Fitting to this stage of their lives, the relationships with their teachers (and parents, for that matter) is characterised by a mixture of emotional proximity and distance.

The two teachers who play the largest part in the film are both in their own way invested in the Algerian War, in one case because of ideology, in the other case because he actually lived there and has an Algerian wife. This visibly affects their relationship with the students and their position in the school. However, despite the political dimension of the narrative, the actions of the characters are first and above all coloured by a sense of humanity.

From a pedagogical perspective, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is how characters ask for help which cannot be given, or, reversely, offer help which is unwanted or cannot be received.

The oldest student in the class is an already 21 year old man who lived in Algeria and strongly opposes the country's independence, as it renders what he considers to be his home country inaccessible for him. Not being able to engage in any study activity, he is bracing himself for another failure - the third time already. The teacher who also lived in Algeria sympathises with him (on a human level, not because of his political views), but the student refuses help. The pedagogical offer is not accepted, even unwanted.

In one of the first scenes of the film, the brother of one of the protagonists, a soldier in the Algerian War, is on a leave, to get married. At his wedding, he asks one of the teachers, a communist and anti-war activist, who reputedly has helped soldiers go into hiding, to help him not return to war. The teacher refuses. She says she cannot help him, but doesn't explain very clearly why. The teacher is asked for help (although not in school), but is unable to do so.

A third pedagogical question exists completely outside the teacher-student dynamic. Francois, one of the protagonists struggles with his budding homosexuality and a friend tells him he should ask the town's shoemaker and supposedly only openly gay person ("he lives with his friend") for advice. When he finally gathers the courage to ask the shoemaker (tellingly after the high school exams, suggesting this is something he needs to deal with in this moment of transition) the latter refuses to talk to him, saying that he cannot help, because it was too many years ago and he "has forgotten." A cry for help remains unanswered and Francois walks out, to catch up with his friends, suggesting a complex dynamic between personal questions and social context.

Tampopo (1985)
Director: Juzo Itami
Keywords: practice, mentorship

Truck drivers Goro and Gun guide ramen shop owner Tampopo in improving her business. Together they go at great lengths to find the ultimate recipe for the Japanese staple.

The film uses many tropes from American cinema, most notably in the portrayal of Goro, who is presented as the cowboy type saviour of supposedly helpless, widowed Tampopo. Despite the relative independence of Tampopo, her self proclaimed team of advisors is exclusively male, which is counter weighted to some extent by the irony with which they are portrayed. At the end of the day, the film shows how in all things culinary there is never one single authority. Knowledge is quite evenly distributed amongst those who do not allow wealth and privilege to waste their taste buds.
This website is meant as an ongoing exploration of the way fiction film depicts various aspects of 'the pedagogical', understood as a specific kind of relationship between human beings. It is a work in progress and it will or will not grow based on the films I watch. Because film watching is a leisure activity as well, I do not plan strict trajectories through the history of cinema. I think of it as offering a very particular lens, informed by interests stemming from my practice as an artist and educator, on an activity that I like to indulge in anyway.

Some of the films included in this collection are set in sites of formal education, but many aren't. Perhaps some of them were made without the writer or director ever thinking about pedagogy. Both approaches I find interesting: film as an explicit reflection on education and film as an exploration of relationships that could be seen as pedagogical. Examples of both categories can be found here.

I am deliberately not working from a clear-cut definition of pedagogy, instead developing a more intuitive approach. I work from keywords that each describe an aspect of pedagogical practice, to serve as lenses to look at films (see the list on the left), that I will update and revise over time, based on practice of looking and writing. Through this way of working I seek to establish an interaction between concepts and practice through the particular lens offered by cinema as the artistic medium of choice to explore human relationships.

Paraphrasing Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, my aim is to approach film as I approach everything in my practice: as an occasion to study.

Sjoerd Westbroek
Contact: info at [myfullnamewithoutspaces] dot nl
Website: www.sjoerdwestbroek.nl

(Last updated: December 2020)
Being There (1979)
Director: Hal Ashby
Keywords: listening, power

After the death of his employer, gardener Chance, who has never left his employer's premises and only knows the outside world through television, is thrown onto the street by a lawyer. He is hit by a car, but taken care of by the driver who wants to avoid legal troubles. He is taken into their house for recovery and through a series of misunderstandings mistaken for a wealthy sage. Chance thus becomes an advisor and confidant of influential businessmen and politicians alike.

Chance lacks much of the knowledge that is usually considered indispensable in dealing with mundane, worldly matters. Yet, to me he is also more than just a noble savage type of character, naively celebrating some utopian place that would predate corrupt civilisation. In that sense, perhaps the film is more about a particular quality of Chance's presence that sets things in motion for the other characters in the film. For us as viewers it is clear he doesn't teach them anything, yet they are eager students of what they perceive as Chance's wisdom. It's easy to dismiss this as mere projections, but is it as simple as that? Does it matter that there is such a mismatch between Chance's non-teachings and the lessons his pupils think they're receiving? In a way Chance is the ultimate ignorant schoolmaster, not just teaching others things of which he doesn't possess any knowledge himself, but also ignorant of his ignorance.
La Commune (2000)
Director: Peter Watkins
Keywords: emancipation, study

Borderline case, as far as this project is concerned, as 'La Commune' occupies a space in between fiction and documentary. Technically speaking it's probably a fiction film, as it depicts an historical event, namely the Paris Commune of 1871, but it does so in a documentary style. It contains some anachronistic elements, such as the presence of television reporters, which perhaps thematize, in a more clearly recognisable contemporary form, the role of the media in the portrayal of mass movements. 

Yet, on another level there is a specific kind of truthfulness in Watkins' approach. In order to portray a mass movement, you need to mobilize a mass, Watkins must have thought. The cast is enormous and mostly consists of non-professional actors. In a way they play themselves, as they are from social classes with a position in relation to those in power not dissimilar to the members of the original movement. Wikipedia tells me they even did most of their research themselves.

I'm interested in Watkins' take on film making as an emancipatory project. He creates a framework for people to study an historical event, appropriate it and then act out their role, which - in theory at least - has become more than just a role. Because it does not really represent a teacher-student or other pedagogical relationship, the film is a bit of an odd one out in this collection. I wanted to include it anyway, as, perhaps, it could be seen as an example of a situation in which the filmmaker becomes the teacher in the way they stage a production. Not as an auteur who sculpts the set until it matches their vision, but as a more open occasion to study for all people involved.

I feel I have to end with a confession. I never managed to watch this six hour monument of educational film making in its entirety. For opportunistic reasons I take its length mostly as a means to pay respect to those who were involved in both the historical event and its contemporary filmic reconstruction.
Where Is the Friend's House (1987)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Keywords: care, help, love

I love Kiarostami's films. The slowly paced but constant movement express something that is constitutive of the true cinematographic experience. People are constantly moving about, walking from one village to a neighboring town, driving through hilly rural areas. The individual in movement and the landscape merge, so to say, into one physically and emotionally moving image. The camera is never just a single apparatus remaining outside of the action. In Kiarostami's land- and townscapes cinematographic technology is everywhere. A car becomes a camera through which the protagonists and we, as viewers, see the land and its inhabitants. In the case of this lovely film about a boy Ahmed, who desperately searches for the house of a classmate to return a notebook, a few of the protagonists are window- and door-makers, thus engaged in technology framing the relationship between inside and outside. (This aspect alone is worth further investigating, for instance along the tradition-modernity axis, which would go a bit too far here.) We are rarely allowed a peek into private spaces, but we often do see the people Ahmed meets during his quest on a threshold or in movement themselves.

We experience most of the film through the perspective of Ahmed, who has a hard time convincing the adults in the film of the urgency of his search. They give him contradictory assignments (finish your homework, go to the bakery, attend to the needs of a baby - all at the same time), leaving him no space to correct his mistake. It was Ahmed who mistakenly took his classmate's notebook, who now risks suspension and he strongly feels an obligation to avoid the classmate being punished. Not only do the adults create obstacles, with their fixed ideas about obedience as a the principal value in a child's behaviour, they do not even seem listen to Ahmed's words. Luckily, at the end of the film, despite not being able to find his classmate's house, Ahmed finds an elegant way out of all of this.

Babette's Feast (1987)
Director: Gabriel Axel
Keywords: care, practice

'Babette's Feast' is a film about redemption, achieved through a grandiose one-off culinary event of a sensuous, abundant, culinary nature, in a pious world in which anything lustful and enjoyable is seen as the work of the devil. Babette, a French refugee in remote rural Jutland, works as a cook for two sisters whose sole purpose in life seem to be sustaining the memory of their late father, a protestant minister of the most austere kind. After winning the French lottery, Babette expresses the wish to, for once, cook a "proper French meal". The sisters reluctantly agree, setting in motion an encounter between two worlds, the almost entirely spiritualized rural community of North-West Denmark, and the sensuous artistry of cosmopolitan culture.

I included the film here, because Babette could be seen not just as a cook or an artist, but also as a teacher. Someone who does not only produce a culinary spectacle, but who shows a possibility, a way to rethink one's relationship to the world through the senses. Although it suggests a certain opposition between spiritual and worldly matters, at the end I think in the film religion and food are not mutually exclusive when it comes to healing the emotional instability of the community. And after Babette has shown her fellow villagers the possibility of a different world, she demonstrates an acceptance of her fate, by finding consolation in elevating her labour to the level of art.

(Thanks to Robert van de Walle for suggesting to include this film.)
Pickpocket (1959)
Director: Robert Bresson
Keywords: practice

Aspiring pickpocket gets training on the job by a more experienced colleague.
Perceval le Gallois (1978)
Director: Eric Rohmer
Keywords: Practice, rites of passage

Finally a film by Eric Rohmer, a director whose work I love, but had not found a reason yet to include in this overview of films dealing with the pedagogical. Initially, to me it seemed like a bit of an odd one out compared to the Rohmer I know. Compared to the Four Seasons series or the Contes moraux, both the content matter and the highly stylized studio setting feel quite far removed from how his work deals with everyday situations. But perhaps the difference with his other films is overstated when thinking of the fashionable young people whose love life and sense of alienation he often examines.

The story is an adaptation of the medieval narrative poem by Chrétien de Troyes about young Perceval who leaves his mother's house, meets a group of knights and decides to become one, despite his ignorance in knightly matters.

En rachâchant (1982)
Director: Daniele Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub
Keywords: Emancipation

After his first day at school, young boy Ernesto decides to never go back. When his mother asks him why he declares: "Because at school they teach me things that I don't know!". In the following scenes, set in the class room, the teacher and his parents fail to convince him that this might exactly be the point of going school. At some point he simply walks out, leaving the parents and the teacher perplexed.

This elegant 7 minute short based on a story by Marguerite Duras, raises a few interesting questions around the value of knowledge. Does the knowledge the school promotes really matter for the individual? As an example of the state of the curriculum, the teacher points at the photograph of the French president on the wall, who Ernesto, with his slight visual impairment, fails to recognize. Is this really as serious a matter as the reaction of the teacher implies? And when asked about a pinned butterfly in a display case, he says: "This is murder!" Probably, the "right" answer should have been something more along taxonomic lines, but of course Ernesto is right as well.

His parents, raising seven children, two of which have already made a decision similar to Ernesto's, express their worries about their offspring's future. How will he ever to be able to learn the skills he need to find a job, to live a normal life? On the other hand, is it not the ultimate sign of emancipation to refuse to participate in a highly dubious performance in which a dead pinned butterfly represents the study of nature? Or where a picture of a man on the wall is meant to teach loyalty to the fiction of the nation state. While at the end, as Ernesto observes, "[h]e is just a man. [...] He looks like a happy man."

Véronique et son cancre (1958)
Director: Eric Rohmer
Keywords: care, practice

Tous les matins du monde (1991)
Director: Alain Corneau
Keywords: refusal, mentorship