Mar 312010

This may be the only entry in the blogosphere to offer a creative comparison of the mega-blockbuster-smasheroony film Avatar and the economically more humble yet equally riveting French school docu-drama The Class. This is not a film review, though. It’s a consideration of high-stakes creative risk-taking.

Starting with Avatar, which I saw only last night, being surely among the last cinema-goers in the world to do so. A long New Yorker article published last year offers the best overview of the new film-making technology and processes invented–not adapted, invented–to create the wonderfully visceral world of the film. Of course, incredible sums of money were applied to making Avatar and we now know (as the article didn’t) that incredible sums of money were returned from adoring cinema-goers around the world. Fair play, really.

Say what you will about Avatar creator James Cameron, he took some remarkable risks to make the film, and to make it in such an uncompromising way. The New Yorker piece points out that Cameron hadn’t done a film in more than a decade, since the titanic Titanic. But that story, being practically legend, almost sold itself; by contrast, the eco-fantasy of Avatar was totally unfamiliar, with leaked early screening feedback making it sound like the extraterrestrial lovechild of Dances with Wolves and Mogambo (my favourite early review: ‘Smurf porn’). The money, the tech, the weird alien world with its decidedly terrestrial references…as a risk of, er, titanic proportions Avatar could have gone horribly wrong. It didn’t, but Cameron and his backers didn’t know that at the start.

And so, to The Class (warning: spoiler alert!), a risk-taking exercise not about technology but around narrative development. The film’s process began with a non-fiction book by former teacher Francois Begadeau, which chronicled a year in the life of a challenging school in the Paris suburbs. Director Laurent Cantet then worked with Begadeau to adapt the book into a fictional script to be filmed for the big screen So far, so Dead Poets Society.

But then Cantet decided that he wanted real students, without any acting experience, to play the part of students in the film. He engaged an average (meaning, not BRIT School) French high school in the project then ran devising workshops that riffed on the script…and of course, ultimately changed it. The students became, in the film, devised versions of themselves, hence the film’s enigmatic blurring of documentary film and high-quality fictional drama. Begadeau also played a version of himself, and the teachers in the film are teachers at the school…although not necessarily, in the film, playing themselves.

The Class didn’t earn Avatar‘s billions at the box office but it did earn the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival (the first French film to do so in 21 years) and has become almost required viewing for educationalists across the planet. It represents a different kind of cinematic thrill ride, a different kind of story.

Seeing both films recently reminded me that only by stepping off the creative ledge does one generate the potential for bringing something really new into the world. But stepping off the ledge isn’t enough: once over the abyss you can’t afford to look down, lest like Wily Coyote you realise just what you’ve done and proceed to fall painfully back to earth. In this sense, both Avatar and The Class are not only about risk-taking; they’re about total commitment to the risks taken.

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