'Miss Kiet's Children': Film Review | IDFA 2016

Miss Kiet still - H - 2016
First class.

Wife-and-husband duo Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster's documentary premiered in competition at the Amsterdam nonfiction showcase.

Veteran duo Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster deliver a master class in nonfiction filmmaking with Miss Kiet's Children (De kinderen van juf Kiet), one of the year's truly outstanding European documentaries. Premiering in competition at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam days before release in its native Netherlands, this absorbing and moving glimpse into a provincial classroom — where, topically, several of the children are refugees from Mideast conflicts — is perhaps the most notable example of this particular pedagogical sub-genre since Nicolas Philibert's influential, fondly remembered international success To Be and to Have (Etre et avoir) from 2002.

A word-of-mouth success with audiences, programmers and critics alike at IDFA, it will surely enjoy a busy career at festivals and via small-screen bookings, and also deserves a shot at theatrical distribution in receptive markets. Because, while there's nothing especially "cinematic" about this simple, intimate, fly-on-the-desk study of how kids blossom under the guidance of their (wonderful) teacher, its impact accumulates so steadily over the course of a near two-hour running time that sustained, uninterrupted viewer attention is highly desirable.

The wife-and-husband Latasters — she originally from East Germany, he Dutch — met at film school in 1976 and directed their first film together in 1991 with The Temptation. A quarter-century of socially conscious work later, Miss Kiet's Children has the makings of a breakout success that should belatedly extend their renown beyond the specialist documentary community.

Over the course of several days, we see the eponymous, fortyish Kiet interacting with pupils of various ages, from six to around nine, of various ethnicities. "All these differences," she informs them, "help make the world a more beautiful place." The pupils are enrolled at what looks like an idyllic, well-funded public school in the village of Hapert (pop. 5,200), southwest of Eindhoven, near the Belgian border.

Apart from occasional break-time sojourns in the playground, and a buoyantly ecstatic sequence shot during a music-and-dance performance at the end, the camera remains in Miss Kiet's classroom. Seemingly only inches from the children's faces, the camera remains secured to its tripod, discreetly tilting and panning but never zooming. 

The filmmakers thus achieve crucially unobtrusive proximity — the children hardly ever look into the lens — which allows us to observe the range of emotions and expressions displayed. Their distinct personalities quickly emerge, and then develop together in fascinating ways as the film progresses. First among equals is appealing moppet Haya, a lively Syrian girl whose complex relationship with diminutive new arrival Leanne — her rough-housing threatens to shade into bullying — provides the perpetually calm, can-do Miss Kiet ("For every problem there is a solution") with her biggest source of concern.

During the film's second half, the spotlight is increasingly shared by brothers Jorj and Maksem, a bright pair whose traumatic past manifests itself in sleep problems and consequent difficulties with their lessons. A lengthy sequence in which the cheeky, disruptive Jorj is persuaded to calm down and opens up about his issues shows Miss Kiet at her most constructively engaging, and the film at its most unsentimentally poignant. Tears will be shed.

Working in conjunction with the very experienced editor Mario Steenbergen — with whom they collaborated on their last project, Awake In a Bad Dream (2013) — the Latasters, like all good teachers the world over, grasp the importance of paying the children sustained attention. Their chronological focus is also much tighter than that of Philibert, who condensed a whole academic year into a feature-length duration.

Scenes feel just as long as they have to be, in a film which, without overt editorializing — the Latasters dispense with narration, captions and non-diegetic music — takes an unambiguously approving stance of Miss Kiet's gentle but firm methods. The result is a lovely, upbeat, even life-affirming film. It's a work which certainly doesn't soft-pedal the less appealing sides of children's behavior, but shows that empathy, given appropriate circumstances and resources, can be taught just as effectively as arithmetic and spelling.

Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
company: Lataster & Films
Directors: Petra Lataster-Czisch, Peter Lataster
Screenwriter: Petra Lataster-Czisch
Producer-cinematographer: Peter Lataster
Executive producer: Marty de Jong
Editor: Mario Steenbergen
Sales: NPO Sales, Hilversum, The Netherlands (info@nposales.com)

In Dutch and Arabic

Not rated, 114 minutes