CHILDHOOD IN THE presence of other people’s children can be terrifying, if you are seven. Think of children bigger, more gregarious than you. Children who have a different understanding of privacy, of play, of parameters, to you. Laura Wandel’s extraordinary work Playground offers a child’s perspective on the microcosms and pecking orders of primary school existence. It’s a compelling, frightening and difficult to watch, but exceptionally brilliant piece of filmography. You can see it on this year’s European Film Festival, which is designed as hybrid, offering limited screenings and online access in Johannesburg and Cape Town, between 13 and 23 October, Mbabane between 21 and 23 October and Maseru, between 28 and 30 October.
Evocative of the ground shifting work Kids directed by Larry Clark in 1995, Playground takes on the complexity of pre-adolescent children and follows Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her big brother Abel (Günter Duret) into Nora’s first year of primary school. Abel is a few years older; he knows the ropes. Or at least some of them. And as Nora dries her tears shed against her father’s chest and begins to learn how to integrate with her peers, so does she learn a couple of things about Abel.
It’s a tale of knowing when to keep a secret and when to find an adult who can intervene, but it is also about the ways in which bullying can take hold in interstices of existence which grownups do not understand. Even when they are pointed in that direction.
Brilliantly structured from a child’s perspective, even including the angle of the camera, this film doesn’t offer insight into the domestic situation of Abel and Nora. We’re only privy to school time. We’re only privy to the fact that the father is a stay-at-home parent. And we get to experience the world largely through Nora’s eyes. And it is dynamite.
Featuring an exceptionally fine children’s cast which offers both sensitive and brutal understandings into the nature of the child, the work is a contemplation of values as well as one of courage. The wisdom of the directorial hand in working with these young children, clearly already very bright and talented in their own capacities, cannot be overstated. Both Vanderbeque and Duret offer an understanding of the characters they interpret on a level akin to that of Barclay Wright as Jake in the unforgettable 1995 mini-series by Alan Bleasdale, entitled Jake’s Progress.
It considers the child’s space and her world as a discrete entity – the way in which your life was when you were seven – and the bigger context of adult stuff doesn’t feature. More important are the big events of losing your cool in class and being punished by the teacher in front of your peers, losing the place in reading lessons because something horrible is happening outside the window, or reaching out a hand to the child who you know is being bullied.
Playground is not a film for the faint of heart. But if you were a child once, and remember the hierarchies of peers and the hurt than can be inflicted in body and heart by a child your age, who pokes fun at your circumstances (which she doesn’t understand), inflicting damage that lasts a lifetime, you should watch this film. A masterpiece, by any account.
- Playground is directed by Laura Wandel and features a cast headed by Naël Ammama, Muriel Bersy, Sandrine Blancke, Laurent Capelluto, Simon Caudry, Anne-Pascale Clairembourg, Kylian Decorne, Monia Douieb, Günter Duret, Marie-Christine Georges, Michel Israël, Sophia Leboutte, Karim Leklou, Thao Maerten, Jean-François Ravagnan, Émile Salamone, James Seguy, Maya Vanderbeque, Laura Verlinden and Lena Girard Voss. Written by Laura Wandel, it is produced by Stéphane Lhoest and features creative input by Frédéric Noirhomme (cinematography), Nicolas Rumpl (editing), Philippe Bertin (production design) and Vanessa Evrard (costumes). In French with English subtitles, it is part of the 9th European Film Festival South Africa, screening in Johannesburg, Cape Town and online, 13-23 October 2022; and Mbabane at the Alliance Française, 21-23 October and Maseru at the Alliance Française, 28-30 October.