Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Lesson

Written by Lauris Gundars, Andris Gauja, Aleksandrs Grebņevs.
Directed by Andris Gauja.
Filmed by Aleksandrs Grebņevs.
Starring: Inga Alsiņa, Mārcis Klatenbergs, Andrejs Smoļakovs, Gatis Gāga, Liena Šmukste, Marina Janaus, Edgars Siliņš, Ieva Apine, Elza Feldmane, Agirs Neminskis.

Andris Gaujas' The Lesson is a feature film which looks and feels like a documentary by design. It was originally meant as a documentary following a high school class through graduation, but fell apart during the filming once the principal of the school decided that the film was revealing too much.
The film tells the story of Zane Sirma (Inga Alsina) who is about to start her first year as a Russian language teacher in a Riga, Latvia's capital, high school. In addition to her duties as an instructor she is also to serve as the mentor for the current graduating class. She has just ended a relationship, her new coworkers seem indifferent to her for the most part, and her students resentful and rebellious. Zane grows close to one student , Inta (Ieva Apine), who is being abused by her father while one of the other students, Max (Marcis Klatenbergs), in the class seems to be developing a crush on Zane herself.
In documentary films we naturally accept that what we see on the screen is that way because that's how it happened. The filmmaker might have control over what he chooses to show us but not over what actually happens. In a narrative film our assumption is that the filmmaker has his hand everywhere and every single thing up on the screen is fraught with meaning. The documentary film approach doesn't really work for the first part of the film. As characters get introduced and the narrative arc established it all feels a little stilted and artificial. Empty spaces and extended silences seem to be just that. Characters seem to act and events unfold simply because someone wrote it that way in the script.
However, despite the documentary approach failing in the early, expository, parts of the film it really pays off towards the end. The narrative has been established, for better or worse, and now the film becomes about emotional truth. As Zane's and Max's relationship develops and races towards the inevitable cliff, the hand held camera shots, the odd angles, the extended silences and empty spaces enhance the tone and mood of the film and its story.
Overall, The Lesson despite it's early failings is a very good film that  truly captures both the tender moments between two persons as they grow closer and closer united against the world and the awkward moments as they start to drift further and further apart after being beaten down by that world at almost every turn.