Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Latasters' MISS KIET'S CHILDREN: kids on film in a fine and helpful Netherlands school

The earlier documentary of which the new one, MISS KIET'S CHILDREN, should most remind you is probably that fine French kids-in-school doc, To Be and To Have, which let us spend some time in a one-room, mixed-grade schoolhouse in the French countryside.

Among the differences between that doc and this new one are the country we're in (The Netherlands), the larger size of the school, and the fact that most of the kids here are recent immigrants (several from Syria) -- which addresses a subject that has grown hugely in importance throughout the European Union over the fifteen years since the release of that earlier film.

The product of filmmakers Petra Lataster-Csisch and Peter Lataster (shown above, left and right, respectively), the film offers no narration -- written or voice-over -- nor any talking-head interviews, but is simply a you-are-there, let's-watch-these-kids-and-the-interaction-with-their-teacher approach. It works. The children, for the most part, seem either unaware of the camera or so used to it that it makes little difference to them. Only one of these -- a very funny young fellow named Jorj (shown below) -- occasionally seems to be playing to the camera. And, damned if he isn't very good at it!

That titular teacher, Miss Kiet (above and below), seems a font of inspiration and warmth, yet stern enough when more control is necessary. Early on in the film she makes the point that the differences between us all is something beautiful, and this idea is quietly carried on throughout, as we watch the kids learn mathematics, movement, spelling and even how to tie a shoelace.

More than merely teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, however, what Miss Kiet excels at most, it seems, is problem-solving. She is near constantly helping these kids learn how to solve their problems without resorting to anything that approaches fighting or violence. Later she will explain to them: "For every problem, there is a solution!" And, by god, she's there to demonstrate this fact.

From near the opening moment, when a little girl arrives at school having fallen down outside into what must have been a mud puddle and now has on wet and dirty pants, to the Christmas pageant, complete with song and dance, which the kids rehearse and then put on near the film's conclusion, various problems arise and are handled by Kiet and eventually by the children with understanding and a slowly acquired skill.

The movie deals mostly with those children from Syria, though one young boy (above) hails from Macedonia. As we watch the little girl Liane (or Leeann, as it is sometimes spelled here) on the playground, and see her flinch again and again and look up into the sky when any loud noise is heard, we can't help but wonder if she is remembering the bombs and violence of her native land. Finally the teacher talks with Jorj about why he has trouble sleeping, and, sure enough, this started back in Syria. "There is no 'bang bang' here, is there?" he is asked. No, but his sleep remains troubled.

Miss Kiet's Children will appeal most, I suspect, to teachers and/or anyone who harbors the instinct for teaching, and then to those who love watching the faces of children for all the unbridled emotions these can show. The faces here are marvels indeed, and the filmmakers have captured them in all their troubled glory. Finally though, the documentary seems to TrustMovies not quite as accomplished a To Be and To Have. The fact that it sticks mostly with only four or five of these kids made me wish I had seen more of the rest of the class and how the others interacted with these five. You can't have it all, of course, not even within a two-hour framework of this film's two-hour running time.

On the same bill with the full-length documentary is a seven-minute animated short entitled WHEN I HEAR THE BIRDS SING by Trine Vallevik Håbjørg, with animation by Øyvind Tangseth and Ms Håbjørg. Using simple animation that suddenly turns gorgeous, colorful and inspired, the soundtrack offers up snippets of interviews with children of the Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa who were left homeless and/or nearly killed during the violence that followed the 2010 election. They talk of their ambitions, as well as of their travails. In its simplicity, style and beauty, the film is a small but sublime accomplishment.

From Icarus Films and in Dutch with English subtitles, Miss Kiet's Children opens tomorrow, Wednesday, December 13, at Film Forum in New York City for its U.S. theatrical premiere, and then on Friday, December 15, at Laemmle's Music Hall 3 in Los Angeles. 

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