Still from the trailer of Monsieur Lazhar

Cultural differences in Monsieur Lazhar

How a movie can contribute to the public debate

6 minutes to read
Article
Stefan Voeten
28/09/2016

 

This article argues that the movie Monsieur Lazhar can contribute to a public discussion on topics such as education and immigration.

 

Between sugar-coating and reality

Monsieur Lazhar (2011), directed by Philippe Falardeau, opens with a snowy schoolyard in Montréal where children are playing during their break. A nice, idyllic view, which is destroyed in the next scene: one of the teachers hung herself in the classroom. This scene sets the tone for the rest of the movie, as it is exemplary for its oppositional character between sugar-coating a situation or confronting the harsh reality- an opposition between cultures.

As can be seen in the trailer, this movie follows Bashir Lazhar, an Algerian immigrant who applies as the substitute teacher for this class, and he guides these children in their grief and mourning. At the same time, Bashir himself also has a dark past with which he has to deal. Within this frame, Monsieur Lazhar touches upon several topics, providing both insight into as well as critique of it. 

Education 

One such topic is education, specifically the very strict norm that teachers may not touch the children under any circumstances. Of course, a rule that is justified because it can help to avoid child abuse. Still, one of the teachers in the movie puts it like this: ‘We have to treat the pupils like radioactive waste’. No complimenting pat on the shoulder, no comforting hug, even though this is exactly what some children may need after such a traumatic event. 

The question is raised: how can teachers do justice to their job and actually help these children if they cannot act like normal human beings because of such restrictive rules?

Here the question is raised: how can teachers do justice to their job and actually help these children if they cannot act like normal human beings because of such restrictive rules? In this way, the movie takes part in a very actual aspect of the public debate: De Vries shows that many teachers are struggling with the tension between children needing contact and the taboo that is placed on such contact by, among others, teacher education because it is considered not to be appropriate. Monsieur Lazhar seems to argue that such rules should be less rigid and more flexible according to the situation, due to which he can be perceived as taking the side against those who view such contact as inappropriate without exception. 

Clash of cultures 

In another scene, one of the children gives a presentation, culminating in a heartfelt monologue in which she expresses her feelings about the death of their teacher. Bashir considers this very touching and keeps stimulating the children to engage in a dialogue about their feelings. This, however, is forbidden by the principal, as she thinks this is ‘disrespectful’ towards the deceased teacher. Bashir replies: ‘And hanging yourself in the classroom is considered respectful?’ 

Scenes like these show a clash of cultures. On the one hand, the Canadian school deals convulsively with death and does not want to confront the children with it. Exemplary for our Western society is that the school tries to outsource ‘the talk’ to a psychologist, whom these children have never seen before and even though Bashir does a much better job of guiding the feelings of the children. Subsequently, this psychologist tries to soften every heavy topic, contrary to what the children may need. This can, for instance, be seen when in a class discussion about immigration, the school psychologist says that migration is a nice, adventurous trip towards a new and bright future, instead of confronting the children with the harsh realities of it. 

The movie shows the contrasting ways in which cultures let children deal with trauma. 

On the other hand, Bashir has seen death on a daily basis in his homeland, which he left partly due to a civil war. He knows that death cannot be hidden away. Thus, he tries to help the children by teaching them how to face the harsh reality and express their feelings about it. Yet, when the school principal finds out about this, she reprimands Bashir: ‘Let the psychologist do her work. I will not have insubordination.’ In this way, the movie shows the contrasting ways in which cultures let children deal with trauma. 

Stereotyping 

If anything, Monsieur Lazhar gives voice to immigrant experience, such as the way in which they have to deal with stereotyping. For instance, one colleague gives Bashir the advice that ‘In Canada, it is by law made illegal to hit children', immediately framing Bashir and his background into a stereotypical picture. Another such example is when the school principal does not want to hire Bashir at first. Instead of giving solid arguments for this, she criticizes his unusual job application, which she links to his culture: 'This is not how it works here, monsieur'. 

At this point, it should be noted that the movie not only shows such stereotypical treatment but it also creates it. For example, the movie lets Bashir arrange the kids' tables in traditional rows, instead of a circle, to which other teachers react: ‘Desks lined up straight, it’s been years since I have seen that!’ This can also be seen when a teacher stops a game that children were playing because it is considered violent, whereas Bashir does nothing, and says that it is just ‘a bit rough, maybe’. In this way, the movie presents Bashir as a stereotypical immigrant that does not know about our norms and values. 

Similarly, Monsieur Lazhar not only shows the above-described clash of cultures, but it also produces these differences: getting a psychologist for every difficult situation is presented as emblematic of the West. Thus, the movie also creates this view on culture, or at least reproduces this perspective on it. 

Monsieur Lazhar seems to provide a more nuanced perspective on cultural differences: not only someone from another culture runs into these obstacles, but also the people within that culture are frustrated by it. 

But in general, besides showing and critiquing cultural differences, Monsieur Lazhar seems to provide a more nuanced perspective on cultural differences: not only someone from another culture runs into these obstacles, but also the people within that culture are frustrated by it. For instance, later in the movie, Bashir gets support from the other teachers on the topic of psychologists. Namely, when one child gets into a fight, and the principal again wants to outsource this saying ‘I’ll have a specialist see him’, the other teachers also express their doubts about it, cynically remarking: ‘Another specialist…’ In this, one can see a critique on viewing cultures as something static and homogenous across bounded groups. 

Cultural differences 

One of the most striking scenes in the movie takes place when Bashir has dinner with a colleague. What is interesting here is that she thinks she should adapt to his culture: she puts on Arabic music, makes Arabic food, and tries to win his trust by saying ‘I am an immigrant too’, after which she expatiates on trips she made to Africa. She says: ‘exile is another kind of journey, isn’t it?’ Bashir, who feels very awkward and angered because of these forced attempts of closing the cultural gap, with which he is defined by her through his culture instead of his personality, responds: ‘No Claire. For most immigrants it’s a trip without papers, being uprooted to a country whose culture is foreign.’ Thus, the movie shows the cultural gap, people's clumsiness in dealing with it, and gives voice to how this affects the experience of the immigrant himself. 

The movie shows the cultural gap, people's clumsiness in dealing with it, and gives voice to how this affects the experience of the immigrant himself. 

However, Monsieur Lazhar shows that Bashir and the children do establish a bond during the year, due to them being open towards each other. The message this contains is that this is the way to overcome cultural differences. As the director Falardeau said in an interview with Femail Magazine: ‘Let's live together with the immigrant, in everything we may experience: eat, drink, laugh, work, live and overcome hardships together. That's what integration is; it isn't anything else. It's not a matter of establishing policies.’

This movie shows how cultural differences manifest in society, and gives voice to how this affects the experience of the immigrant. Monsieur Lazhar also gives an opinion on such cultural differences, for example by showing that a psychologist is not always the answer but that Bashir's approach may be closer to what the children need. By depicting that Bashir and the children bond with each other due to them being open to one another, the movie tries to provide a possible solution to cultural differences: openness can help to overcome them. 

References 

eOne Films (2011). 'Monsieur Lazhar - Trailer'. Youtube.com. Dec 20, 2011. Retrieved on April 12, 2016. 

eOne Films (2012). 'Monsieur Lazhar - 'Alice's Presentation' '. Youtube.com. January 24, 2012. Retrieved on April 12, 2016. 

Falardeau, Philippe (2011). Monsieur Lazhar. Chicago: Music Box Films. 

'Philippe Falardeau Monsieur Lazhar Interview'. Femail Magazine. Retrieved on April 12, 2016. 

Vries, Peter de. 'Aanraken van kinderen: tussen levensbehoefte en taboe'. Wij-leren.nl. Retrieved on 10-07-16.