When we get no answers, the camera’s unabashed intrusiveness turns us all into voyeurs.

Reviews by Joyce Glasser La MIF (February 25, 2022) Cert 15, 112 mins

The 2006 film by French director Laurent Cantet, The class, is a sort of faux-documentary in which the teenage students are amateur actors, though the semi-impromptu dialogue is based on real people and situations, and the teacher whose story this is plays himself. The film follows the challenges of teaching a class disrupted by troubled students in a deprived neighborhood of Paris.

Fred Baillifs La MIF is a Swiss (French language) film in the tradition of The class by blurring the lines between non-fiction and fiction in such a way that the first part of the film feels like a documentary. And you were almost right. Baillif shot the film over a two-year period in a real Geneva hostel for disadvantaged girls, using the actual residents and staff of the hostel as his actors and largely improvising dialogue.

You might not want to be the advocate for this film, which deals with rights and privacy issues when filming a group of vulnerable underage girls, but the film won awards at international festivals and is now being released in the UK. While you’ve met some of these troubled girls and their parents before and may not gain new insights into the causes and solutions to their problems, the acting is superb and the unabashed intrusiveness of the camera makes us all uncomfortable voyeurs.

The film begins with a scandal after sixteen-year-old Audrey (Anaïs Uldry) is caught having sex with a fourteen-year-old boy and is arrested. The damage to the home’s reputation becomes overwhelming and a blame game ensues. Authorities rule that the school, which has been co-educational so far, will be all-girls, although the age range is widened. The final scene of the film hits hard with the ramifications of that decision, which we almost forgot.

The all-girls rule doesn’t stop Alison (Amélie Tonsi) and Caroline (Amandine Golay) from forming a couple, running away overnight, getting drunk and robbing a homeless man. What is worrying but not discussed is their lack of empathy. Are you too old to learn empathy? Can it be taught?

Novinha (Kassia Da Costa) brags about all the older men she’s had sex with before getting involved in an altercation that requires intervention. Is this an ingrained problem, or is her inability to control her emotions a consequence of the news that she will be spending a weekend of trial at her house? Having witnessed her mother’s cold indifference when visiting her daughter, we can speculate.

On the other hand, Justine’s (Charley Areddy) responsible middle class parents are crying and begging Justine to come back home. Justine hesitates because Home brings back memories of a horrific event – which was not the fault of Justine’s parents.

Then Précieuse (Joyce Esther Ndayisenga) with a history of parental abuse from her father arrives with an emergency protection order while her mother has a breakdown and is assigned. When Précieuse’s mother comes to take her home, senior social worker Lora (Claudia Grob), the ailing director of the home, copes well with the situation. But is Précieuse’s version of her life the one we should believe?

Next, Lora Tamra (Sara Tulu) has to deliver the devastating news that her asylum application has been denied. And because Tamra turned eighteen, she has to leave the country. Lora asks “If you run away, do you know what you would do”?

La MIF colloquially means family and the social workers live and eat with the growing protégés like in a family. We hear the words trust and honesty in conversation as you would expect in any family.

Tensions arise, however, because just as parents with children can’t really be best friends, social workers must maintain boundaries. The charges resent the limits, but when they are crossed, problems also arise, and Lora finds herself a victim. Because Lora’s empathy, devotion and determination to protect the girls are linked to her personal life, which shines through throughout the film.

The first time is at the beginning when Lora enters a room and tells two girls that she is on sick leave. Halfway through the film, Lora asks her husband, “Sometimes I wonder if you’re thinking about her,” and he in turn asks if Lora is sure she wants to go back to work anytime soon. We learn that she had a breakdown. It is only late in the film that we realize that Lora’s need to protect vulnerable children is related to her inability to protect her own daughter.

This storyline is more schematic than the others, but gives the film an emotional as well as thematic core and focus. The struggle among the adults in the grooms’ room when Lora finds she can’t stay away feels authentic. So the effort of doing this job takes its toll.

Baillif remade his film in the editing room, re-recording scenes we had previously seen to show again, adding dialogue and sometimes a new perspective. A campfire scene with all the girls and Lora returns in a much longer form at the end and makes sense for the first time. This technique is interesting and makes for good post-film discussion, but whether it’s more confusing than enlightening may depend on the viewer’s experience.

Baillif is no outsider, and while he’s now a full-time filmmaker, he was briefly a trained social worker. In a director’s statement, he tells us that he was inspired by Claudia Grob, the director of the real home, who is obviously frustrated with the system. However, what we don’t have are ideas for change. With budgets tight, good parents overwhelmed with their teens, and families able to have children regardless of parenting skills, what better way?

When we get no answers, the camera’s unabashed intrusiveness turns us all into voyeurs.

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