The booing of children playing that bumps into school walls and reverberates until it dominates everything. Buildings that feel huge because you can barely rise above a windowsill. Adults whose bellies and hips are mostly seen – unless they bother to squat – and therefore always stand at a distance. The Remarkable Debut A world by Laura Wandel(1984) not only shows the anxious Nora in her first year of school, but skillfully catapults viewers into her experience of the world. For example, by usually only focusing on Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and that which is close to her.
Almost everyone has experienced such a first day of school and while watching it spontaneously remembers how overwhelming the world felt back then – although you may have forgotten it. Or had you repressed it, because during A world For example, also remember how intimidating other kids could be just because they were a few heads taller. And at the age of six or seven, the moment you start primary school in Belgium, almost everyone is.
Also read: The hell of the schoolyard in movies
A world plays at a French-speaking Belgian school where anti-bullying programs don’t seem to be rolled out or working. Mobile phones are also remarkably absent, although there is talk of application TikTok. When Nora is dropped off at the school gate for the first time, she clings to her brother Abel (Günter Duret) like a drowning man. But – also because she is forced to – she seems to find her own way and blossom briefly. At the same time, she sees her brother and hero languish at the same school because he is terrorized by some bullies. Attempting to help him, from Nora herself, from their father, from teachers, seems to make the situation worse. In the film, adults are barely aware of the extreme cruelty that takes place at the edges of their vision or react inadequately.
It causes several changes in the dynamic between brother and sister. Nora learns what injustice is too young and feels obliged to make impossible choices. There is often a concern in her look that is painful to see, especially in someone her age.
The fact that the film drags you along is, apart from the perspective, because of the acting of Vanderbeque and some of the other students. Wandel is on their skin and can make them giggle, but also show shame, fear and sadism in a way that at times comes across as documentary. And that while A world after a while it definitely no longer feels like a documentary, but like a thriller that you suspect cannot end well. Cruelty only leads to more cruelty, including in the schoolyard.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 24, 2021