22. March 2017

When education goes off track: Artist Pilvi Takala’s film, to be shown at the Double Feature on March 27, shows that life as a teacher can become servitude.

By Daniel Urban

To a greater or lesser extent, our school years are a defining time like no other. While some reminisce fondly in later life about their classmates, the free time, the lack of responsibilities or the reassuring rhythm of the school routine, others are happy to have left behind them the prison of the classroom, which can blight childhood or youth for some.

Others still never quite leave their schooldays behind, but simply switch roles and take up residence at the front of the class behind the teacher’s desk. For teaching staff, generally the school becomes purely a workplace and not a living environment per se. But there’s one exception: The boarding school teacher, who virtually subjects his or her personal life to the professional task at hand, thus living out the experiment of merging professional and private life into one unit around the clock on the boarding school site.

Payment in kind

“Drive with care” (2014) by the Finnish-born artist Pilvi Takala (born 1981) gives the viewer a detailed insight into the form this can take: In the voiceover our narrator talks about her life as a teacher at an American boarding school. We learn how a large proportion of her salary is paid in kind. Rent, power and internet are all covered, and any repairs required in her house are undertaken by the campus’s own caretaker. Her whole life is played out on the school site: She sends her own children to the campus nursery, buys groceries in the on-site store and eats her lunch in the canteen.

Pilvi Takala, Drive With Care, 2013, Filmstill, Courtesy Stigter van Doesburg (Amsterdam), Carlos/Ishikawa (London)

But for the teaching staff there really is no end to their educational duties: Each teacher works as an “advisor”, a kind of parental figure, for a certain number of children. The advisor helps with preparation for a driving test, for example, buries any house pets that have died and comforts the grieving children, or even drives the students to fast-food restaurants if they don’t feel like eating in the canteen – naturally with a trip to the cinema afterwards.

The performance of the teaching staff

The more the nameless narrator in “Drive with care” talks about her daily routine, the more we recognize the subtle pressure. There is no classic after-work downtime and she has to be available to the children around the clock, which ultimately leads to her remaining virtually motionless in her home – for fear that at any time someone could ask for help, for example using her microwave to make popcorn. The narrator remarks laconically that she might apply for a job at a boys’ boarding school for next semester in the hope that they won’t need emotional support for so many things around the clock. There are demands on the teacher’s professional and private life from the employer too: Her performance in the classroom is monitored continuously, whilst privately she has to be secretive about the fact that she lives with her boyfriend as the couple are not married.

Pilvi Takala, Drive With Care, 2013, Filmstill, Courtesy Stigter van Doesburg (Amsterdam), Carlos/Ishikawa (London)
Pilvi Takala, Drive With Care, 2013, Filmstill, Courtesy Stigter van Doesburg (Amsterdam), Carlos/Ishikawa (London)

“Drive with care” draws on the experiences Takala herself had as a teacher at a private school. The film describes the social living environment that the biotope of the boarding school represents and outlines the psychological pressure built up both by the children and the administration. The only means of escape is hiding.

7000-pound bouncy castle

In previous works Takala has tackled the structures, rules and requirements of social communities: In “Players” (2010) she presented portraits of six poker players living in Bangkok and offered an insight into their subcultural world, while as part of the project “The Committee” she gave a group of children aged between eight and twelve a large proportion of some art prize money she had won previously and observed how the children realized a communal project entirely on their own – the children decided to use the 7000 pounds to build a five-story bouncy castle.

Pilvi Takala, Drive With Care, 2013, Filmstill, Courtesy Stigter van Doesburg (Amsterdam), Carlos/Ishikawa (London)

With Anna Odell’s directorial feature-film debut “Återträffen” (The Reunion) from 2013 we remain in the social battleground of the school, albeit on the side of the pupils this time. In the age of the internet when former classmates can find each other more easily virtually anywhere in the world, reunions are standard practice. However, during her schooldays, the director Anna Odell was one of the excluded outsiders and was therefore not invited to her class reunion, which prompted her to make a video “what-if” version of the gathering.

Bullying by classmates

The 90-minute film quickly clarifies the world we are in: It is the world of the Dogma film, and hence the first half of the film is strongly reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s masterpiece “Festen” from 1998. Anna Odell, who acts in the film herself, comes to the class reunion a little late and sets about destroying the party mood. She talks aloud about how much she suffered at school and about the bullying by her classmates, with the predictable result – the situation escalates. After around 40 minutes comes the coup, however: The audience has merely seen a film within a film, namely precisely that which the now far more withdrawn Odell wishes to show to her old classmates subsequently, with the aim of talking to them about that time.

While the second half has a documentary feel about it, this too is actually executed by actors. The director leaves the audience unsure whether the gathering with former classmates was merely a fictional event or whether it represents a kind of reenactment of real encounters. With a touch of narcissism, Odell tackles the demons of the past, as she did previously in her art film “Okänd, kvinna 2009-349701” (“Unknown, woman 2009-349701”), in which she simulates a suicide attempt on a bridge in Stockholm before the general public in order to be taken to a psychiatric unit by the police afterwards.

Both Anna Odell and Pilvi Takala present an image of the social frame of reference that is the school by having the individual explore the limitations of what is feasible within the unspoken pressures and norms of such an environment. Here, what is particularly interesting is the specifically chosen social environments, namely how outsiders are dealt with in Sweden, a country that is a flag-bearer for social democracy, as in Odell’s “Återträffen” or the effects of an engaged approach to teaching in “Drive with care”, which undoubtedly pleases the students, yet locks the life of the teacher into an almost feudal structure: into servitude.

Återträffen, Image via filmaffinity.com