In France, the classroom and other public places have become political. Public policies such as immigration and forbidding religious symbols in public places have distinguished France from other democracies and have in turn created a different social system. For young people, it is difficult to accept or understand wholesale some of these circumstances, yet at school, the centralized system is in charge of enforcing the state rules. In Once in a Lifetime, we get an inside glimpse at life of the “non-traditional French” and how young men and women negotiate their place within the French state. The film also brings to focus how to use empathy to illustrate historic lessons.
The film opens on a young woman outraged because she is not able to go into school wearing her hijab. The desperation and outrage in her voice elicits sympathy, while the explanation by school administrators is understandable, the behavior is simply not permissible. From reading headlines, we can see that this situation appears to be in line with recent reports. It is a timely commentary by Director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar, who based the film on a true story, written by Ahmed Dramé, the screenwriter and co-star of the film. Mention-Schaar shows us how the classroom has become a microcosm for social inequality, especially in poor neighborhoods where the majority of the students are the children of different immigrant groups. It is a harsh environment and for teachers a constant challenge.
The true focus of the film is on a dedicated teacher who devises a project that changes the dynamic of the class from adversarial to collaborative. Anne Gueguen (Ariane Ascaride) is the obstinate and persistent teacher who asks her students to work on a project about the Holocaust. It is a tough sell, most of them do not feel any sort of kinship to Jewish people and believe that there are other instances of genocide that take precedence. It is an interesting point raised by the film, whether atrocities need to be current or close to home to still hold relevance. You may suspect where this is headed, as the film is not necessarily a thriller, but it is an important reminder of the power of history and how it can help us make sense of current events.
One of the most poignant moments in Once in a Lifetime involves the class looking at photos of children being sent to concentration camps. The age of the children in those photos and their expressions brings to clear focus what the teacher is trying to impart, and how. There is still validity to the events of the past, but it takes a strong teacher to make that connection with her current students, who are themselves undergoing a difficult period.
The filmmaking in Once in a Lifetime is straightforward. This is not an innovative film, but a more traditional drama that uses the familiar trope of “teacher reaches difficult kids.” It is a touching film, nonetheless, and one that brings to focus French politics and their different policies when it comes to immigration and integration. The performances are engaging featuring characters that do not always receive much development on the big screen. The diversity of immigrant groups that Mention-Schaar includes is impressive, cause for merit in capturing the complex world beyond the cinema screen.
Once in a Lifetime runs 105 minutes, is in French with English subtitles, and is not rated. It had its Florida premiere in South Florida at the 19th Annual Miami Jewish Film Festival in January. It now opens in South Florida theatrically on Friday, Oct. 21 at the following theaters:
- Boca Raton, FL – Living Room Theaters FAU
- Delray Beach, FL – Movies of Delray
- Lake Worth, FL – Movies of Lake Worth
- Tamarac, FL – The Last Picture Show
- Hollywood, FL – Cinema Paradiso Hollywood
Ahmed Drame, the screenwriter and star of the film will be making select appearances at several of the theaters above from Oct. 21 – Oct. 23. Visit the websites above for details. A screener link and images were provided by Menemsha Films for the purposes of this review.