Favoriten movie review: Excellent doc observes a primary classroom in Vienna for three years - Hindustan Times

Favoriten movie review: Excellent doc observes a primary classroom in Vienna for three years

Mar 23, 2024 01:30 PM IST

In Favoriten, director Ruth Beckermann films a classroom in Vienna for around three years to see how the students respond to their teacher.

The classroom is a microcosm of the world in the excellent new documentary Favoriten, directed by Ruth Beckermann. It is a space that is never not chaotic but it is also unassumingly alive, and requires loads of hours and effort from the teacher at place. Premiering at the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival, Favoriten has been filmed for three years, from 2020 - 2023, where the camera stays with 25 kids and their teacher Ilkay Idiskut inside a classroom in the biggest primary school of Vienna. What transpires in the course of the next 118 minutes is a funny, charming and utterly compelling documentation of the power of guidance and the idea of community. (Also read: Sting Like a Bee review: A fascinating film-within-a-film study of Italian youth)

Favoriten premiered at Cph: Docx.
Favoriten premiered at Cph: Docx.

The premise

But the question is whether the very idea of 'watching' without any interruption can produce any story at all. The key here is not look at the kids through an 'adult gaze' and Favoriten achieves that distinct focus on the kids through a lower angle, where the kids are treated as equals; where their conversations and concerns, mistakes in solving a tenth place sum is just as important. Ilkay is always present; sometimes to seek answers, sometimes seated at the back, letting the opinions flow.

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One of the many reasons why Favoriten works so wonderfully is because the camera feels unobtrusive in the way these kids react, where the viewer gets to unfurl the many dynamics in place. There is a the shy one who takes a little more time. The class topper who gets all As. The one who always asks 'why' not because he wants to know but has other mischievous reasons. Each one of them is different and have a distinct personality.

Then again, at many segments, the kids are given phones to shoot their own film, and it documents the loving world seen through their eyes. Favoriten amplifies the little energies that these kids share with each other in such loving detail that by the end I felt as if I had known them forever.

Yet, Favoriten is a film of many things as well. It reflects the subtext of the understaffed classrooms, the issue of language for non-native speakers, with judiciousness and care. It also reflects how young minds process new information and learn to interrogate what they see and what they are told. In what is perhaps the most important scene in the film, Ilkay and the kids talk about the Russia Ukraine war. Ilkay provides some of them to tell them what they know about the situation so far. To this, one kid pointedly asks, "It's only about Ukraine and Russia. What's going on in Syria?" The implications are devastating.

The fact that the school is also under-staffed does not escape the attention of Beckermann. Ilkay is the only one who facilitates the class throughout the day, speaking in a language that not everyone follows because it is not their mother tongue. But the consistency is resplendent and the calm and composure with which she resolves the many little conflicts in class is undeniable. She is an excellent facilitator, and Favoriten stresses the importance of her nurturing, caring presence with the kids.

Final thoughts

There is one particularly unforgettable scene where Ilkay will be confronted with the uncomfortable news that a new girl has been bullied in class. They are in grade four now, and up until now there was no such inkling of discomfort in the class. The details shock her, and in extension us- the viewer, because from where did this crop up? There are truths that might never bear witness to the camera. Ilkay resolves this with such grace and compassion that I was moved to tears. The world is tough and unforgiving, and who knows what will happen when the class is over and these children go out to discover what happens outside, but these little details, the moments they share with their excellent teacher will stay on forever.

Favoriten is a sensitive and wrenching investigation of the present, of the very idea of community and childhood. Without question, it is also one of the finest films of the year. I could spend another three hours inside this classroom and not complain for one second.

Santanu Das is covering CPH: DOCX as part of the accredited press.

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