Interview: How Petra and Peter discovered Miss Kiet’s Children

Miss Kiet's ChildrenLast month I published a review of Miss Kiet’s Children, directed by Dutch documentary filmmakers Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster. I don’t think I could have been more emphatic in my praise for what they have achieved with the film. Shot over the course of a full school year, the Lataster’s provide an immersive look at the experiences of a group of migrant children finding their way in a new school, a new country, and speaking a new language.

Pulling the camera down to the eye-line of the kids, and forgoing narration or any adult commentary, the extreme discipline evident in the Lataser’s style forces the viewer to abandon their adult mindset and dive headlong into a simpler but far more volatile world of playground politics. Under the surface of all this is the knowledge, rarely alluded to within the course of the film, that some of these children are suffering from a degree of trauma following their experiences in the Syrian conflict.

I recently had the honour of discussing Miss Kiet’s Children with Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster, ahead of its premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival.

First of all, I’ve seen your film and it’s fantastic. It was just such a unique and immersive experience. I felt like I was one of the kids in the playground.

Peter: Well, thank you very much for the compliment.

Petra: Yeah, that’s why we made this film. We wanted the public to have the same experience the children had when they came into the class.

I’m ashamed to admit that this is the first of your films that I’ve seen. Can you tell me a little bit about your background as filmmakers?

Peter: We met at film school a long time ago. We went to the same film school in Germany in the late 70s.

Petra: We were a good match because Peter did camera education and I did screenwriting and film theory.

Peter: In terms of our work, I think a common theme is that we look into ordinary people’s lives. There are no heroes or stars or famous people.

Petra: And we want our films to be part of a discussion within our society. So everything we make is a comment or discussion about a dilemma within our society.

Peter: To give you an example, ten years ago we made a film in a big university hospital here in the Netherlands, and at that time there was a big discussion going on about the value of life and how far one should go with preserving life even if it has no future. This was a film about the dilemmas of doctors who had to care for prematurely born babies, so we wanted to know their ideas, their thoughts. We wanted to know how they tried to solve these big life questions they see every day working as doctors. And that was a film that kind of coincided with a big discussion that was going on in Dutch society, not only Dutch society, but also elsewhere, especially in the United States.

But we don’t want to make political films. We’re not making propaganda films. We only want to look into these lives and let the people who see the film come to their own conclusions.

Miss Kiet's ChildrenThat certainly shines through in Miss Kiet’s Children. How did you come to make it?

Petra: We wanted to make an ode to a teacher, because we think that teachers in our society are undervalued, underpaid and under-respected. And we believe teachers are extremely important in every society. We have a network of school directors in the Netherlands, so we asked all these school directors to write to us about the best teacher they have in their school.

And the Director of the school in Hapert sent us a letter about Miss Kiet, and that made us curious. We went there and we visited her classroom. We were in love with her in ten minutes and we thought, “That’s it.” It was merely a coincidence that Miss Kiet had refugee children from all over the world in her class, so we ended up making a film that was also about refugee children.

When we discussed with Miss Kiet that we wanted to make the film, she immediately agreed, but she said, “I don’t want to be the focus… I do my work for the children. So the focus has to be on the children.” It was a shock for us, because it wasn’t what we intended to do, but we also thought it was ideal because you can see the quality of a teacher through the development of the children. So the focus of the film became the children, but at the same time you see a portrait of Miss Kiet… even though you often only see her legs.

One of the things that make the film so incredible is just how intimate it is in its style. It’s almost as if the camera were invisible to the children. How did you manage to achieve that?

Peter: So that’s how we do all our films. We like this process, this kind of visual honesty that you get when you are in a situation for a very long time and try to blend in with the people, the institution, in this case the classroom with the children. We were in the class from the very first school day, the first of September, and the children were so occupied with all the new things they had to do, and getting acquainted with the teacher they couldn’t understand, and learning a new language and trying to get acquainted with the other kids, who they also couldn’t understand.

There was so much involved in this very intense process that they weren’t really interested in what we were doing. And so after a couple of days, they took us for granted. And when we weren’t there, the children would ask, “Hey, where’s the film crew? Why are they not here?” They got so used to us that we could do anything we want.

We shot over the course of the whole school year. Altogether we shot for 52 days. 

You mentioned the kids having to learn a new language, I’m curious, do either of you speak Arabic? I imagine a lot of the time you’d end up filming conversations that you could only understand after?

Petra: Yeah, it’s a very good training for a filmmaker, in fact… to read people through their behaviours. We had fun afterwards when we worked with the translators and they told us what the children said. It was often very funny. We had a lot of joy during the making of the film with the children. And naturally, also pain, but it was so relieving to see children cuddling and feeling better in a very short time. It was so wonderful to see them learning to work and to have fun because some of them had lost the ability to feel joy.

Miss Kiet's ChildrenThe film touches on the experiences of these refugee children without delving too far into them, which I think is perfect. I’m very curious how Miss Kiet, the children and their parents felt about the finished product. Have they all had a chance to see the film?

Peter: Oh yes. We had a wonderful, big premiere at the IDFA Festival in Amsterdam in November. There’s a beautiful, big hall in the Tuschinski Theatre. It’s a lovely art deco cinema hall, which fits 800 people. All the parents and the children, everybody from the school came from this small town, which is about two-hours drive, from Amsterdam in two big buses. We had a fantastic time. The children loved it. They had the time of their lives, I guess, because they experienced something they’d never seen before. This audience of grown-ups was interested in who they were. They came onstage afterwards and they received a standing ovation from the audience. They were very, very proud of what they did. 

Was it hard getting the parents on board for the project in the first place?

Peter: In the beginning we were a bit sceptical and wondered if all the parents would go along with this idea. Imagine you have fled your country; you come to a new country and bring your kids to school, and the first thing they ask… “Is it okay if we film your child for a year?” But they felt it was a way to do something in return for the help they’d got from the Dutch people and Dutch society. They wanted to show that their children are doing well and working hard to find their way. So they were very positive about it.

Having now seen your work, I’m quite excited to see what you do next. What’s the next project?

Petra: We shot 200 hours of material for Miss Kiet’s Children and we only used two hours. We are busy preparing another film out of this material about a small boy who has a story we couldn’t tell in the “Miss Kiet” film. So we want to tell it now and we are busy getting the money to do that.

Peter: Yeah, it will take at least a year before the film is finished. We have to wait to get finances in place but we have a TV station that wants to do it. It’s same TV station that commissioned Miss Kiet’s Children. So it will be ready sometime next spring and then will be televised. It will be a smaller film than this one.

Tickets to see Miss Kiet’s Children at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival are now available.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

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