Review: ‘Miss Kiet’s’ looks at universal nature of kids
The most extraordinary thing about “Miss Kiet’s Children” is its ordinariness. It is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about an elementary schoolteacher and her students, and that teacher and her students look like teachers and students around the world.
There is the constant struggle to maintain order among energetic, easily distracted kids. There are outsize egos and shrinking violets, procrastinators and complainers and open-minded angels eager to engage and learn. There are tense playground dynamics and home factors that shape personalities and perspectives. And through it all, there is the patient perseverance of the teacher, Kiet Engel.
It’s a universal experience. But there’s also something different about Miss Kiet’s class. Miss Kiet is teaching refugee children, mostly from Syria, in Holland. In class the children are only supposed to speak Dutch, not their native Arabic, which most do somewhat haltingly at first.
OK, cue the bloody memories, the tragic backstories, the political posturing that you would expect of a modern documentary about war-torn children. Except that’s not what directors Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch are about. A child’s recollection of Syria doesn’t surface until late in the film, and even then it’s more personal history than hysteria.
This is a film about how children — and humans — adapt and learn. It never leaves the classroom and its adjacent playground. It rarely pries into backgrounds or home lives, it never even introduces a parent.
It focuses instead on the children, their evolving personalities, the cultivation of their social skills and their openness or resistance to learning and a new world.
The class includes kids of various ages, who may or may not have attended school in Syria. There’s the self-assured firecracker Haya, whose enthusiasm and confidence can veer off into bullying at first. There’s the confident, older Nour who mostly flies serenely above the daily noise. There’s the ever-procrastinating and obviously troubled Jorj, who whispers harsh sentiments in Arabic, and his younger brother, Maksem.
And there’s 6-year-old newcomer Leanne, all wonder and innocence, but still strong enough to stand up to Haya. It is absolutely impossible not to fall in love with this kid.
True to the fly-on-the-wall approach, the directors never intrude on the action, never offer commentary or criticism. The respect for Miss Kiet is obvious and reflects respect for all teachers, and the honest tracking of the students is somehow both eye-opening and reassuring.
In the end “Miss Kiet’s Children” offers hope and promise. After all, if these kids can thrive, all kids should be able to.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘Miss Kiet’s Children’
Running time: 115 minutes
At the Detroit Film Theatre