Director Laura Wandel’s début feature Playground (Une Monde, 2021), is a deeply unsettling story that offers no resolution. A visceral observation of bullying shot at the eye level of a seven-year-old, the film reminds us that the dark underbelly of educational idealism is a traumatic experience.
On seven-year-old Nora’s (Maya Vanderbeque) first day at her new school, she seeks protection in the company of her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). When she discovers that he’s being bullied and tries to help him, her interference only escalates the intimidation and violence.
I’ve often described schools and playgrounds as the “Serengeti” – a place where predators stalk their prey, where those vulnerable children are preyed upon by their bigger, stronger, bullying schoolmates. It has never been my intention to sound dramatic, but rather to convey honesty about the savagery that can lurk within the supposedly “safe places” we send our children.
For some children, the world of school is a utopia, for others, it’s a dystopian hell. It’s an environment full of prejudices, and in any milieu, a power balance is constructed. Wandel explores how we feed off one another, empowering ourselves at the expense of others.
Meanwhile, the teachers who are there to nurture justice are often absent, or ill-equipped with the task at hand. Nora’s teacher tells her, “If we could have stopped this all from happening, we would have.” When Nora asks why they didn’t do anything, her teacher replies, “Because sometimes, we don’t know what to do.”
The glaring issue the story exposes is the passive attitude of teachers and parents towards bullying. They expect words to be enough to fix the root cause of a playground culture of intimidation and violence, and they try to place the onus on the victims of bullying – they must “speak up”. They’re ignorant – or simply choose to ignore – childrens’ fear of their bullies, sometimes even their teachers, and their lack of trust in adults who deem themselves their guardians.
The risk with Abel is that he’ll evolve into an active perpetrator to protect himself, which is what happens. This reveals two sides of the survival instinct: dominantly cruel, or submissively moral. Nora’s response is intriguing. She fluctuates between the two behaviors and most often lives in the grey realm between the two extremes.
Une Monde, meaning ‘a world’ is more of an apt title than the English-language Playground. It emphasises Wandel’s approach as that of a wildlife biologist who is studying the power dynamics and rituals of children and adults in this habitat. The director understands the necessity to not be heavy-handed with criticism or condemnation. Her intent is to present an experience.
For some viewers, Playground will stir sympathy – or empathy – and anger. Others may recognize themselves in the bullies’ behaviors.
Playground could be a visceral reminder of the power we lack in those formative years when we are taught – by adults and by other children – to not like ourselves and to not trust others. A common expression is that “children can be cruel”, and yet, we perpetuate the common saying that childhood is the time when innocence flourishes. However, in the conflict between utopia and dystopia, innocence is the first casualty. In children’s behaviour we see the full spectrum of adult behaviour.
In Something Like an Autobiography (1983), Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recalls his brother Heigo taking him to witness the aftermath of the Great Kantō Earthquake. The ruins were littered with corpses. He writes, “I felt my knees give way as I started to faint, but my brother grabbed me by the collar and propped me up again. He repeated, ‘Look carefully, Akira.'”
The lesson the young Kurosawa took away from that distressing experience was, “If you shut your eyes to a frightening sight, you end up being frightened. If you look at everything straight on, there is nothing to be afraid of. Looking back on that excursion now, I realize that it must have been horrifying for my brother too. It had been an expedition to conquer fear.”
Some moments we gaze upon the carnage of death, other times, we gaze upon the carnage of the living. Admittedly, the Kurosawa example is a grave contrast of extremes, but watching Playground for some will be a distressing confrontation with trauma for those who suffered severe bullying as children. Playground doesn’t offer catharsis, but we can honour the pain and find compassion and understanding for ourselves and others.