Film Review: Miss Kiet's Children

Affecting doc about one teacher’s handling of a classroom filled with immigrant children, probingly filmed but with a graceful tact.
Specialty Releases

In a special school in a small village in the Netherlands, the titular character of husband-and-wife team Peter Lataster and Petra Lataster-Czisch's doc, Kiet Engels, teaches a classroom full of the children of mostly Syrian immigrants and refugees. Miss Kiet’s Children follows the kids through their school days, which at times seem almost operatic, so intense and emotional are they—that veritable rollercoaster ride of myriad feelings. At first blush, they seem just like any other children—with some of them strikingly beautiful camera subjects—but the trauma they’ve experienced in different ways can evince itself, and quite unexpectedly.

Engels, gaunt of face and figure, is one helluva dedicated teacher: incredibly patient, compassionate, beyond generous, but a definite disciplinarian as well, brooking no nonsense from her sometimes hyperactive and recalcitrant charges. Such a one is Haya, who we are first introduced to carrying on like the last drama queen because she has just fallen and dirtied her pants. Although Engels finds her a clean replacement garment and lavishes concern over her, this little diva is having none of it and clings to playing tragic victim of circumstance. Haya is no shrinking violet in actuality, however, for not long after this occurrence we see her mercilessly bullying a distraught little girl, the newest addition to the class.

People in documentaries and reality TV often say that you completely forget about the cameras in your face, and this is especially true of this film’s populace. Cinematographer Peter Lataster’s camera gets up real close and personal to the children, who positively bloom in front of it and are always completely themselves, seemingly wholly unaware of the lens inches away from them. The result is one of the most revealingly honest presentations of what it’s like to be a child ever filmed.

We are introduced to an adorable pair of brothers, Jorj and Maksem, who are upset that they’re not allowed on the gym floor to play with the others because they don’t have the correct shoes. When Engels realizes she cannot reason with Jorj, the elder, she tries to pry little Maksem away from him, and the way he weeps in commiseration and clings to his big brother is one of the most touching scenes in any film this year. Owl-like Jorj is the class cut-up, actually, sneakily resetting the timer during a math test, but it turns out that his antsiness (and frequent drowsiness) stems from his inability to sleep. The bitter truth behind this problem is revealed when he finally breaks down and describes what it was like living in Syria: “Outside, bang bang! Not good. No sleep.”

The activity the boys don’t get to do is a trust game, in which the kids try to knock each other over but which ends with them shaking hands and telling each other, “You are a friend I can rely on.” Surely, the conflict portion of the game must evoke, at least subconsciously, their turbulent backgrounds, and it’s a pretty canny choice to engage them in a kind of battle, thereby normalizing traumatic experiences, with a positive human connection at the end.

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