BFI London Film Festival presents Playground (Un monde); Playground is released nationwide on April 22nd.
What would you share if I asked you to recount a memory from primary school? Maybe 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 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 private memories we choose to forget. However, as time goes on, these memories gather dust, becoming increasingly opaque, until we are unsure what was real and what was a mere childhood nightmare.
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However, these painful school memories now and again 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 its visual power and auditory submergence, with every frame unlocking the vault of school memories we keep firmly shut in our subconscious minds. This, in turn, creates an immersive, unnerving, and compelling slice of cinema that not only speaks to the experiences of every child 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, as the no man’s land of the school playground is brought to life in exceptional and captivating detail. Wandel’s film speaks to our subconscious through exquisite natural performances and sublime cinematography, as it challenges our airbrushed and rose-tinted view of childhood.