Opening today at New York’s Film Forum before, next week, rolling out to additional theaters across the country, is Laura Wandel’s Playground, an astonishingly immersive and nuanced drama that plunges the viewer into the complex childhood dynamics of school bullying. It’s Wandel’s debut following well-received shorts, and the film’s seeming simplicity belies a pre-production that had to be handled with incredible sensitivity. (As we discuss below, Wandel worked extensively with her young lead, using devices such as finger puppets to walk her through the emotional arc of her character as well make clear to her the “make believe” element of the filmmaking process.)
In Playground, shy seven-year-old Nora (played with heartbreaking conviction by first-time actor Maya Vanderbeque) is attempting to fit in at her elementary school, but her quest for friendship is complicated when her brother, Abel (Günter Duret) becomes the target for the school’s mean kids. Keeping her moving camera at the level of her subjects, Wandel’s observational, non-didactic approach allows us to watch in real time a very young girl developing for herself a sense of ethics amidst the violent turbulence of seemingly the most carefree of locations.
I spoke to Wandel briefly over Zoom, where her answers were delivered through an interpreter. Playground is in release from Film Movement, and at Film Forum it is paired with Jay Rosenblatt’s similar-themed short, When We Were Bullies. (Read Rosenblatt’s interview with Lauren Wissot here.)
Filmmaker: Tell me about your own background as a filmmaker and how Playground became your first feature.
Wandel: When I was 16, I knew that I wanted to become a filmmaker because I saw some films that changed me, for instance, Jeanne Dielman, [23, quad du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles], by Chantal Akerman. [That film] was like “a body experience” for me. I came out of this film and I had to make movies.
Filmmaker: And how did this particular film, Playground, become your first feature? On the surface, it is such a simple film, but, and especially thinking as a producer, it’s also so complicated in its realization.
Wandel: I believe that school defines who we become as adults. When we come to school for the first time, we feel the need to integrate into this micro society. This was such an interesting subject to me, and I knew I could not really handle that within a short film. So it had to be a feature.
And more than the school itself, the playground is, for me, a kind of mirror of our society in general. In school, of course, we learn the curriculum, but most importantly, we learn how to engage with other people. I wanted to have siblings in the film because it was important as a symbolic way to show that we are all brothers and sisters, but that sometimes we are just willing to give some things up in order to integrate, to fit in. We all went to school, we all experienced this and I think anybody can identify with the characters in this film.
Filmmaker: How did you begin engaging with your producer, Stéphane Lhoest, on this film, especially given the unusual and complicated pre-production it would entail?
Wandel: I’ve been working with my producer for 10 years. He actually picked me out of school and produced my two short films, so this is a really long relationship. He always told me that he was waiting for me to make a feature film. I can really feel that he trusts me — he trusts and is really supportive of my choices. When I was wondering how I would handle the children, he also did some research, trying to find learning coaches. He was by my side all the time, making suggestions and searching with me. He’s always the first person to read what I write. I trust him.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea of using puppets as a way to bring your young actor into her character?
Wandel: I heard about this lady, who’s an orthopedagogue, a learning coach. She had worked on another feature film with a four-year-old — somebody who could not read — and they had the developed this [process] for this other film.
Filmmaker: You said in another interview that your young actor, Maya Vanderbeque, said, when you met her, that she wanted “to give all my strength” over to the film. How did she know about the film, and did she have any references of her own about filmmaking and the kind of film she might be involved with?
Wandel: Her mother answered a regular casting call and for that call, there was just a very short synopsis that explained that she would be a sister and that there would be bullying involved. But then when she came in, she was already very emotional about the film because she was confronted herself with bullying the year before. She kind of felt that she needed to also tell the story to the world. Of course she didn’t have a any experience at all, and she didn’t have a lot of cinematographic references, but we spent a lot of time together and I showed her Ponette, by Jacques Doillon, and also The Kid with a Bike, by the Dardenne Brothers. We watched those films together so she could get a sense where I was going to.
Filmmaker: Let me ask you about both the ethical and the practical issues of getting such committed performances from children. I’d love to hear you talk about the ways in which you made sure that the children kept a boundary between the play of acting and their actual selves. So much of the film revolves around how play and reality are often the same thing, but at the same time, Maya is playing a character who is not herself.
Wandel: Maya is somebody who’s extremely mature. She can really express her feelings really well, and I would not have picked a child who was still invaded by nefarious feelings of things like that. Also I want to stress that the [youngest] character in the film is not the target of the bullying herself — she’s more of a witness. Günter [Duret], the other actor is older, so it was easier. With school bullying in real life, he was more of a witness, and it helped him understand the feelings to play the target of bullying.
Filmmaker: How did you work with your cinematographer, Frédéric Noirhomme, to shotlist and plan for a film where the point of view is quite literally low?
Wandel: The camera was actually strapped to his waist, and he had an assistant next to him who was carrying the batteries so they would not be too heavy on his back. I was standing next to him with a little screen to be able to direct the children. In order not to exhaust the children too much, the cinematographer and I would choose the frames with our phones, the both of us, a bit in advance. We would ask extras to step in so we would not exhaust our main characters, who we would bring in at the last moment to shoot the scene.