Much like a day at elementary school, this vérité wonder called Miss Kiet’s Children is exhausting, heartening, raucous, tender, occasionally dull, sometimes tearful, and ultimately a vital public good. Veteran wife-and-husband documentarian team Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster plop us into the classroom of the endlessly patient Kiet Engels, a Holland teacher whose students are mostly refugee children from the Middle East. Most find it easiest to speak Arabic, but Engels instructs them in Dutch, in math, and in the navigation of Holland’s schools and society. They speak Dutch, too, often with halting imprecision. (The film’s English subtitles labor to suggest their struggles with syntax and grammar.)
Good teaching, of course, is close-up and personal, and much of the film finds Engels in extraordinary one-on-one interactions with her students. We see her explaining to Haya, a girl whose shyness manifests in the pushing and grabbing of a younger and smaller friend, the importance of watching the faces of other kids during play. Just because tiny Leanne doesn’t say “stop” doesn’t mean she likes being dragged around. The lesson sinks in, though Haya, a little proud, keeps her face blank, admitting no wrong. Engels understands the prickliness of children’s egos, correcting behavior with a tender firmness, never shaming.
The filmmakers train the cameras on the kids and their teacher, offering no other context than what we observe in the classroom and on the playground. That’s enough. The kids work at their multiplication tables, showing the woman they call “Miss” their results, hoping for a sticker. Engels is quick to praise, to laugh along with the kids, to encourage them to connect with herself and one another — and with native Dutch children in occasional playtime meetups. A scene of Engels urging Haya to play with a blonde stranger at recess stirred for me every meeting-new-people anxiety I’ve ever suffered. But she doesn’t force it, instead encouraging the children to discover their own capacities.
The most moving passages of the film concern a bright, funny, anxious Syrian boy named Jorj. He’s the kind of kid adults find annoying: distractible and distracting, sometimes unwilling to work, prone to dumb lies and comic showboating. The camera stays on him when he’s supposed to be completing some classwork. He puts his head down, fusses with his pencil, and makes melodramatic proclamations in Arabic that get the kids near him giggling: “Take me to intensive care!” and “My brain is short-circuiting!” When told he will have to miss recess if he doesn’t complete his division assignment, he declares, “Even if I had a year, I wouldn’t write anything. I do what I want, and you do what you want. Be blown up, I don’t care.”
But Engels and the filmmakers see the troublemaker’s potential and his pain. He suffers nightmares of bombings; he’s uncertain and uncomfortable when not jokily complaining. Engels never snaps at him. Rehearsing a costumed song number that the kids will perform in assembly, she dances with him, up to a mirrored wall. “Look, what a nice boy,” she says looking at him look at himself. “Isn’t that a nice boy in the mirror?”
His face is expressionless. He’s holding a rose, a part of the routine.
“This is Jorj,” Engels says, “and he’s on his way to Grandma to give her a flower.”
Jorj bites his lip.
Engels, undaunted, asks, “Does it trouble you to look at yourself?”
Almost imperceptible, Jorj nods.
“Yeah?” Engels asks, smiling wider now than ever. “You’re such a nice, sweet boy. Aren’t you a nice, sweet boy?”
Jorj starts to nod but then looks down so nobody will see him cry. Again and again, Miss Kiet’s Children invites us to regard something extraordinary: the moments when these kids start to feel confident in being themselves in the strange world they’ve been moved to.
Miss Kiet’s Children
Directed by Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster
Opens December 13, Film Forum