Movies about inner city schoolteachers attempting to connect with their unruly students have long been a cinematic staple, dating at least as far back as 1955’s The Blackboard Jungle. But few have approached the subject with the impressive realism and naturalism as Hanan Harchol’s semi-autobiographical feature directorial debut. Premiering on Amazon Prime, About a Teacher deserves the theatrical release it would have gotten in more normal times and is definitely worth seeking out.
Based on the writer-director’s own experiences, the pic revolves around the central character of Hanan (Dov Teifenbach), who begins teaching film in an inner-city public high school. Having previously made a skimpy living as a strolling guitarist in restaurants, Hanan gets far more than he bargained for with his new job. During his first day, he completely loses control of his classroom, his students essentially ignoring him and running amok. Things don’t get much better from there, leading him to suffer such violent nightmares that his wife insists he sleep in the living room.
A compelling drama about education, minus the Hollywood hokum.
Hanan’s elderly father has little use for his son’s complaints. “You just give them cameras and tell them to run around and film!” he brusquely comments. Nor are his fellow teachers much help. “Don’t smile until at least November,” one advises. When Hanan passes by a classroom filled with quiet, attentive students learning algebra, he asks the teacher her secret. “I give them minuses!” she responds.
Unlike in so many films of its type, the central character’s difficulties don’t get solved in days or weeks. About a Teacher takes place during the first three years of Hanan’s career, depicting his long struggle to get better at his profession. Although the film thankfully eschews hokey melodramatics (there is no gun waving, for instance), it realistically depicts such episodes as camera equipment suddenly going missing and a student violently grabbing Hanan’s wrist.
As Hanan learns to overcome his preconceptions and personal biases, he becomes better able to communicate with his students. One of the most moving scenes shows him finally confronting a student who perpetually falls asleep in class. The student explains that at age 17, he already has a child and has to work two jobs after school to support his family. Flabbergasted by this information, Hanan encourages him to make a documentary film about the difficulties of being a teen parent, and you can see the student finally beginning to awaken to the artistic possibilities of the medium.
Meanwhile, Hanan faces other difficulties, including pressure by a stern higher-up (Leslie Hendrix, terrific) to shape up and fulfill such bureaucratic obligations as providing written lesson plans. And his personal life begins to suffer under the strain, with his wife pressuring him to start a family.
Although episodic in structure, the movie holds together beautifully thanks in large part to Tiefenbach’s compelling performance. Looking and sounding like a young Woody Allen, the actor superbly conveys Hanan’s initial fear and insecurities and then his gradually increasing confidence as he begins to live up to the demands of his new profession. Onscreen nearly every minute of the film’s running time, the actor creates a not always likeable but always sympathetic and understandable character. By the time Hanan earns the respect of his students and colleagues, he’s earned ours as well.
About a Teacher features several of the Harchols’ former students in the cast and crew, which undoubtedly adds to its air of verisimilitude that is only compromised by a surprise narrative twist toward the end that feels all too familiar. The end credits feature a moving photo montage of the filmmaker posing with many of those students, many of whom have earned awards and festival exposure for their work.
Available April 7 on Amazon Prime
Production company-distributor: Hanan Harchol Productions
Cast: Dov Tiefenbach, Tibor Feldman, Kate Eastman, Aurora Leonard, Leslie Hendrix
Director-screenwriter-producer: Hanan Harchol
Executive producer: Sara Bloom
Director of photography: Kai Dekassian
Casting: Adrienne Stern