Miss Kiet’s Children review – poignant study of refugees' school life

The subjects’ faces lend a simple potency to this documentary about migrants nursing trauma and forging friendships under the guidance of a kindly teacher

This entirely engrossing, tender and shrewdly observed documentary is the study of a special infant school class in the Netherlands, which is set aside for the children of migrants and refugees – largely from Syria.

They are taught by Kiet Engels, known to them as Miss Kiet. She is enormously patient, gentle, loving and yet keeps a firm eye on what is going on. The film-makers’ camera rather imitates her quietly authoritative presence: recording in lucid closeup the children’s regular school-day – they are utterly similar to any other Dutch child’s of course, and yet each has had an awful unspoken experience that was part of the reason for coming to this placid school. They have already had an education that their teachers can only guess at. At first, they look like any other children; later, we see symptoms of trauma showing through.

What is so good is simply the children’s faces. They have a simple, unconscious power. In this way, Miss Kiet’s Children reminded me of the documentary classic Être et Avoir by Nicolas Philibert: there is the same clarity and simplicity, the same sense of going back to basics, the same feeling that we, the adult audience, might need the kind of humility required of these pupils as they take their daily Humanity 101 class.

And the personalities involved are tremendous. First among equals is Maya, who is cheeky, exasperating, a drama queen and a sly manipulator of others. We first see her in tears because she has fallen on her way to class and muddied her trousers. Clearly she anticipates getting an almighty telling-off from her mum on returning home and keeps asking Miss Kiet to telephone her mother to inform her of this crisis. But the teacher is having none of this nonsense and Maya is left to her own devices, which often involve the chivvying and passive-aggressive “helping” of other kids: telling them how to play games, how to draw etc. You can see how Kiet, despite being nettled by Maya’s naughtiness, is also a bit beguiled by her mischief.

Leanne is a new pupil from Syria, saucer-eyed with suppressed anxiety – and the recipient of Maya’s oppressive attentions. There is also Jorj, a boy with glasses and a wonderfully droll face. He is a natural comic who gives a hilarious running commentary on his failure to complete an arithmetic test. Yet it is Jorj who gives us a representative glimpse of what they have all gone through. He is always yawning in class – trouble sleeping. Quarrelling with someone he says: “Be blown up! I couldn’t care less!” Later, he tells Miss Kiet that the explosions out in the street were what stopped him sleeping in Syria: “Outside bang, bang! Not good. No sleep.”

Miss Kiet gives them interesting “trust” games to do in the gym. Paired off, they have to push hard against each other, trying to topple each other backwards, but must then shake hands and say: “You are a friend I can rely on!” In this way, she encourages the children to think of conflict as something that leads naturally to resolution and friendship – the trial of strength a demonstration of what will underpin that alliance.

Perhaps the most moving moment comes when they are acting out a play and are encouraged to walk up to a mirror and do something dramatic – a pose, a funny face. Some are mysteriously overwhelmed by simply looking at themselves as everyone else looks on, perhaps becoming fully aware of their own existence in the world for the first time. Miss Kiet’s Children is a lovely film.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw, from the international documentary film festival, Amsterdam

The GuardianTramp

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