BFI London Film Festival presents Playground (Un monde); book festival tickets here
If I were to ask you to recount a memory from primary school, what would you share? The chances are it would be something positive; a friendship that meant everything to you, or a day where you created something extraordinary in class. Hell, it might even be a smell, a taste associated with a school dinner or a sound that remains lodged in your brain. However, I very much doubt anyone would recount the sense of fear, apprehension and doubt that surrounded our first days, weeks and months at school. Or, in fact, the fear of other kids and their actions in the wild west of the school playground. But were these memories not more potent than the rose-tinted view we cling to as adults?
The answer to that question is complicated, but one thing is beyond doubt. As adults, we quickly learn to airbrush away many of the negatives of our childhood, even if they continue to haunt our subconscious. This action of locking away painful childhood memories exists within us all, our early and late school life at the heart of many of the private memories we choose to forget. And as time goes on, these memories gather dust, becoming more and more opaque, until we are not quite sure what was real and what was a mere childhood nightmare.
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However, now and again, these painful school memories escape the vault, sometimes through a dream, smell or sound. With her stunning debut film Playground, Belgian newcomer Laura Wandel unlocks our memories through film. Here we follow the daily school life of a brother and sister, Seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her older brother Abel (Günter Duret). But far from being a standard school-based family drama, Wandel creates a sensory journey where the jungle of school life is seen from the perspective of young Nora.
The resulting film is truly stunning in both its visual power and auditory submergence. Every frame, unlocking the vault of the school memories we keep firmly shut in our subconscious mind. This, in turn, creates an immersive, at times unnerving, and compelling slice of cinema. One that not only speaks to the experiences of every child and adult but reminds us all of just how cruel kids can be as they slowly develop their moral compass. Here the film’s central story of playground bullying carries all the intensity of a war movie, as groups form, only to crumble and reform under a new banner—the adults, distant, mysterious and often inept in their understanding of the jungle of the playground.
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However, if all this sounds dark and foreboding, Wandel also captures many of the joyous moments of school life. Here, we find kids biting their sandwiches into animal shapes while their friends guess what it is; the urgent need to belong, held in random conversations and creative games, as individual confidence slowly builds. But, when exploring the core themes of bullying, place, position and hierarchy, Playground is harsh and brutal but ultimately true. The no man’s land of the school playground brought to life, in a truly exceptional and captivating debut film. One that speaks to our subconscious through exquisite natural performances and sublime cinematography. Its sheer power, something to behold as it dares to challenge our airbrushed and rose-tinted view of childhood.