Writer and Director: Laura Wandel
The unforgiving savagery of the playground is the subject of Laura Wandel’s film showing at the London Film Festival. Running at only 75-minutes and taking a child’s-eye view of school routines and the changing loyalties of primary school, Playground captures the pressure to fit in, the complete powerlessness of both the children and their teachers to protect each other as well as the constantly shifting sands of popularity.
Nora’s first day at school is complicated by witnessing acts of bullying involving her beloved older brother. But when the bullies turn on Abel, Nora tries to help, involving the father and teachers who only create further trauma for the children who become isolated from their peers. As Nora’s academic confidence grows, she struggles to regain her footing in the merciless playground.
Wandel’s film asks whether intervening when you see an act of wrongdoing is always the right thing to do, and what the consequences of a good deed might be? As Nora naively wanders into the middle of a complex power dynamic, Wandel shows the rippling effects in both all-male and all-female friendship groups, resulting in different kinds of victimisation – some physical, some through the mental effects of social exclusion – with the same painful outcome for the children involved.
By retaining Nora’s point of view throughout and, crucially, keeping the camera at her height gives the film its immersive quality and helps the adult audience to see the bigger children and authority figures from that perspective, always overshadowed and physically looking up to others. It increases the feeling of impotence, particularly in the fight scenes where these tiny people find it impossible to shake lose and escape their tormentors.
Maya Vanderbeque exudes Nora’s troubled mind and mixed emotional state so well, giving an extraordinarily mature performance as Nora, developing her character from frightened new pupil who can barely say her name in class to more socialised schoolgirl prepared to stand-up to bullies even at the cost of her own comfort. As brother Abel Günter Duret offers acres of melancholy when things turn against him, while his own complicated reaction is both saddening and frightening.
Playground leaves us with very little context beyond the school gates, so we know nothing about the economic and social status of the family beyond their worried full-time father (Karim Leklou). Yet, in some ways, this suits the almost level playing field that Wandel creates, where strength and the ability to impose is the basis for this relentless dog-eat-dog scenario. Some of the attacks will have you wincing and as a psychological portrait of the under 10s, Playground is both alarming and insightful.
Playground is screening at the London Film Festival.