“We can’t always help people in the way they want to be helped,” a teacher tells Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) in “Playground,” hoping to offer some comfort to the child even without being able to cure what really ails her. The seven-year-old has just entered a new elementary school with her sightly older brother Abel (Günter Duret) and neither have adjusted to the place easily, with Nora teased about what she eats for lunch and denied her request to sit next to Abel, who is having his own issues with classmates intent on relentlessly hazing the new kid. Their father, who is only seen dropping them off at school and picking them, would seem to be preoccupied with his own concerns and when Nora brings up concerns about Abel, it seems to her brother like she’s tattling.
If it feels like the world is stacked against Nora, writer/director Laura Wandel doesn’t let up in her devastating feature debut, keeping at eye level with her young lead throughout so the overwhelming sensations of casually cruel classmates gossiping and the cold shoulder of adults who can’t be bothered to listen lie just off-screen growing more enormous in the mind than they could even possibly exist in reality. Still, the emotional toll it takes on Nora becomes quite tangible as the soft features of her face seemingly start to harden as physical violence towards her brother increases and the growing sense that she is left on her own to counter it curdles into a belief that aggression rather than compassion might be the way forward, with the relentless routine of the school day over months reinforcing the notion that things may never change.
The powerful drama packs a punch that far outlasts its sender 70-minute run time, knocking out audiences at Cannes this past year where Wandel picked up an FIPRESCI Prize in the Un Certain Regard section en route to being selected by Belgium as its official entry for the Best International Feature Award at the Oscars and a future release from Film Movement in the States. Recently with the help of a translator, Wandel shared a bit of background about the production and making such an impressive transition from shorts to features as well as how she found such a magnetic young actress in Vanderbeque to shoulder her weighty character study.
How did this come about?
I start from a particular place to create stories and this time I felt it was going to be the world of the school. I wanted to tackle the subject of integration, the need to fit in into the macro society from the point of view of a child who will discover the world for herself. This is an actual school. It was closed during the holidays, but the school was obviously extremely important because it’s a character in itself and I probably saw all the schools in Brussels. This is not a primary school, it’s a secondary school, but I wanted the school to have [specific physical qualities]. I wanted the main gate to open on the playground, but also on the street and then the gate also had to be surrounding the building itself, so it looked a little bit like a prison. Then the school also had to have a very big structure, so that you could also lose your way a little bit in the big corridors, so there were a lot of things we had to look for to find the perfect school.
Because the story is embedded in the daily routine of the school, were there activities such as the swimming and the lunch that stood out to build the story around?
Temporality was important to me. Of course, the repetition that happens is because I wanted to show that you lose track of time. You don’t really know where you are. There’s the beginning of the school year, but after that, you don’t really know exactly when it is and it was a little bit like how children perceive time. They don’t really know exactly the day, but they have this notion of repetition. They know things are going to happen again and they are conscious of this repetition, but they don’t know when and I wanted to have the audience experience this as well.
How did you find this amazing actress to play your lead?
Actually, I went through a regular casting process, so I saw more than 200 children, but this little girl came and she was only seven years old at the time. The first thing she said to me, “I want to give myself to this movie,” so I was really overwhelmed by this answer, but I also noticed the camera loves her. When she did the camera test, [I was moved by how] she came across the lens and how many expressions her face would show, and I think it’s her inherent strength as an actress that she actually had the capacity to imagine.
I really developed a relationship with her, and for instance I taught her how to swim so that we really got along well. But then I worked for three months with all the kids and during that time, I had a camera on them all the time so that they would get used to having the camera there at all times. As soon as one of the children would look at the camera, we would have to start again, so they would get used to not looking at the camera.
Was it any different working on a longer-form feature?
Of course there’s the financial pressure, the sheer amount of money that you need to assemble to make the film, so there’s more pressure, but I liked it more because the shooting itself is longer and you can also go deeper into more things because you have more time.