By Jeremy Carr.
Young Haya is having a rough time. At the beginning of the documentary Miss Kiet’s Children, this precocious primary school student is terribly upset. She fell on her way to school and her pants are dirty. She is sad and shameful. Her teacher, Kiet Engels, offers to give her a new pair, but that takes some convincing. To make matters worse, Haya, who later gets in trouble for what she clearly believed was good-natured roughhousing on the playground, struggles to plead her case, to explain what took place. The problem with her explanation is that she is far more fluent in Arabic, and she happens to be a Syrian refugee enrolled at a respectable Dutch school in the idyllic village of Hapert. The struggle she faces at this school, while surely distressing to any average nine-year-old, are implicitly compounded by her personal baggage. Husband and wife directors Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch make it known from the start, that even though Engels has students of Dutch heritage, the eponymous children of focus are those who have fled assorted Middle East conflicts. It’s an element of backstory that is rarely broached after a brief introductory statement, but the lingering proposition persists, for the viewer is continually speculating about what these poor kids must have endured, what they must be thinking when confronted by comparatively trivial drama, and how it registers and relates to what came before.
Haya is the most frequently appearing youth of Miss Kiet’s Children, but there is also diminutive Leanne, another Syrian, who enters the perilous position of “the new kid,” daunting enough to begin with and only magnified by her problematic timidity. And on the lighter side of things, there is Branche, a native-born Dutch boy who effortlessly receives all the girls’ fancy. Sometimes, the children can’t help but look at the camera – out of curiosity, to seek approval, or purely as a result of uninhibited showmanship – but Lataster and Lataster-Czisch manage to simultaneously capture a candid, fragile instability, with emotional outbursts and revealing expressions of bitterness and confusion, jealously, and flirtatiousness. They started shooting on the first day of school and continued for 52 days, allowing the children to grow accustomed to their presence, a patient process that pays off with the film’s unobtrusive honesty. With the camera literally down to their level, Lataster and Lataster-Czisch provide no commentary on the children, but rely rather on the subtle use of a slight pan or an extended take to induce expressive interpretation.
Obviously central to the film is Miss Kiet herself, an astoundingly unflappable and compassionate educator. Petra Lataster-Czisch said they wanted to make an “ode to a teacher,” and they couldn’t have selected a more deserving subject. Engels confronts every situation with the same levelled calm, positivity, and confidence. She gives all of herself to her students, and though she may have spawned the impetus for the film, and is the obvious adult protagonist, her projected empathy keeps her almost as secondary character, a necessary tutorial byproduct of the classroom and its roster of child costars: She cares more about the children, so we care more about the children. “We think that teachers in our society are undervalued, underpaid, and under-respected,” stated Lataster-Czisch. “And we believe teachers are extremely important in every society.” This is certainly the case here, as Engels doesn’t just cover the basics of linguistic construction and fundamental mathematic concepts; she connects with the students on a sensitive, communal level, recognizing the uneasy assimilation process many of them face, teaching manners, forgiveness, and social interaction, and instilling productive life lessons – “It’s more beautiful when we’re all different.”
Working with editor Mario Steenbergen, the directorial duo of Miss Kiet’s Children trimmed down around 200 hours of footage to 114 minutes of final screen time. At that length, the film still grows somewhat tedious at times, drawing out the banality of the children’s behavior as we wait for the next anticipated conflict or breakthrough, but part of the ultimate engagement with Miss Kiet’s Children (and Miss Kiet’s children) derives from the time taken to develop these youth, and to allow their personalities to evolve. An embryonic framework also allows the filmmakers to move through the routine education process and to isolate the lingering effects of a child’s tumultuous past. (Miss Kiet’s Children is shown alongside When I Hear the Birds Sing, an animated short directed and co-animated by Trine Vallevik Håbjørg, which similarly juggles the future prospects of young people with their current realities – one comment in that film begins with the elusive, devastating line, “If I grow up…”). Take brothers Jorj and Maksem. At first, Jorj appears as the class clown, cracking up his classmates by telling how he fell out of bed one night. But a delicate glimpse into his prior and current home life presents something far more tragic. It starts small, with the grief of not having proper gym shoes or having difficulty with a math problem, but his immediate frustrations (“God help me,” he declares during one tough assignment, and later, “What am I supposed to do with this teacher?”) soon expose more severe echoes of anguish; innocuous irritability generates comments about bombs going off in his former neighborhood and exasperated cries of “Be blown up! I couldn’t care less!”
This is all dealt with tremendous care by Lataster and Lataster-Czisch, who take firm control over the political context of their film, making sure it doesn’t supersede the primary humanitarian purpose of the picture. The various conflicts that scar these children are inescapable and inconceivable, but the kids become more than just where they came from, more than what they may have seen or experienced. Their futures are not set, and in the course of these 52 days, one sees a pronounced maturation and a distinct development of their demeanor and attitude. They conquer their cultural and verbal barriers and become average students, with average anxieties, with a desire for achievement and a need for trust and friendship. In that is the touchingly transcendent hope of Miss Kiet’s Children, that these young people will one day secure a better life than that which they were initially given. It is a new life encapsulated by Miss Engels’ multilingual melting pot classroom, where her concerns are that of any other teacher, trying to wrangle the attention of rambunctious youngsters, and the children are more worried about getting the best sticker for their work than they are about their day-to-day existence.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.