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The Uncivil Servant: Refugee Children and Their Teacher

Mitchell Abidor
December 12, 2017

NICOLAS PHILIBERT’S 2002 To Be and To Have was a moving documentary about the students and teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. This lovely film, a deservedly huge success, was in a way a vision of both France past and the mythical eternal France — the students white, the teacher dealing, at worst, with the misbehavior of a student here and there.

Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster’s equally moving Miss Kiet’s Children, showing at Film Forum from December 13-21, in a tragically short run, also deals with a one-room schoolhouse, or at least a classroom containing many grades, this time in small-town Holland, but it is anything but a vision of eternal Holland. Miss Kiet’s children, from 6 to 12 years old, are all immigrants, most of them refugees from Syria. Their problems and lives bear little resemblance to the children in To Be and To Have, indeed to most Dutch children. It is all the more touching, heartwarming, and inspiring for all that.

Miss Kiet herself shows infinite patience and understanding for her children’s problems concerns, and needs, and does all she can to allay their fears, to clean their clothes and even the soles of their sneakers, recognizing that they come to her classroom bearing heavy weights from their short lives.

The film is called Miss Keit’s Children for a reason. If the focus of To Be and to Have was on Georges Lopez, the teacher, here Miss Keit, for all her warmth and kindness, is more often than not an offscreen voice, guiding and showing sympathy for her charges. But it is they, their struggles with the Dutch language, with their memories, with their new lives, who are the heart of the film.

In a sense, a very real sense, it can be said of Miss Keit’s Children what has been said of Dreyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc (coincidentally shown just a couple of weeks ago at Film Forum): It is a symphony of faces. The camera lingers on the face of Haya as she grows from a frightened and unhappy little girl to a rather bossy but gifted one by film’s end; of Jorj, who is chronically sleep-deprived, he and his brother Maksem kept awake at night the memories of the “boom, boom, boom” constantly heard at home in Syria; and particularly of Leanne, a 6-year-old Syrian who almost immediately demonstrates amazing intelligence, and whose eyes steal the film. Her marvelously expressive face is almost worthy of Falconetti’s in The Passion of Joan of Arc — and the death glare she fires at Haya thirty minutes into the film, when the latter interferes with Leanne’s attempt to master the dual letters “aa,” is worth the price of admission.

WE SEE TIME passing not only through the children’s outerwear, but through their growing mastery of Dutch, which is the only language they are allowed to speak in the classroom, a rule they admonish each other to remember.

Miss Keit is not only teaching them arithmetic and reading and spelling; she is, in the classic mode of teachers everywhere when dealing with immigrants, teaching them, in the gentlest form, Dutchness. It’s not only their learning to speak the language that matters. She tells them, when rehearsing a dance, that in Holland boys and girls can stand alongside each other. She has the largely Muslim students perform in Christmas costumes. She tells them to play with Dutch children during recess. She tells them that they all look different and that “it’s a good thing we all look different.” Their home world isn’t totally discounted: a young girl is reassured that the cookies distributed by Muslim Jorj in a Santa Claus costume are halal. But it’s not by chance the film ends with a dance song and dance number to the tune of “Freedom.”

Perhaps the Dutchness the children are being trained into is an idealized one, but Miss Keit does it with love and sincerity, and as we watch one can’t but think that none of this can occur here, since we have shut these children out of America.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.