Film in the Focus: Ilmar Raag’s KLASS

“Revenge could never be a trump in promoting this film”

Ilmar_RaagThe Estonian film KLASS by Ilmar Raag surely asks for a broader explanation of the context. Shocked by the toughness of the story and its violent ending, people come out of the cinema realizing that a relevant story was told, but with no answer to their many questions. That’s how Ilmar Raag wanted it: there is no answer to the problem of teenagers trying to solve their situation by an outburst of mass violence. We can only question ourselves about such tragedies.

15 year old Joosep every day is bullied by his classmates. Under the leadership of the dominant Anders, his classmates make him go through a series of violent humiliations. Until one day Kaspar stands up to defend him. For Kaspar this war becomes a matter of honour and he’ll be punished cruelly for choosing the victim’s side. When the situation grows out of hand, the only way out seems to be a violent revenge.

Ilmar Raag: “I studied in the U.S. at the time of the Columbine drama. One of my friends was adjusted as a psychologist in Columbine Highs School. The picture he painted differed a lot from the stories in the media who presented those boys as psychopaths; ‘normal guys don’t do such things’. Nowhere in the media was mentioned that they got bullied in school and precisely picked their targets. I recalled my own schooldays. Once a bigger boy hit me, immediately I started fantasizing about my revenge; I still remember it so clear. Amongst youngsters a relatively innocent offence can generate an disproportional response.”

How did you do the research for this script?
Raag: “In a school theatre festival in Estonia I looked out for bright young actors with a story to tell. I gathered 15 of them in a workshop where they told me the stories on which later the script was based. The first day they told me stories about ‘the day I felt physical pain’. The second session was about ‘the day I was ashamed’; the last one about ‘the day I felt guilty’. Each day their stories became more personal.
I tried to fit those stories into a script. Every morning I presented 10 pages to which they added some personal details: ‘we don’t talk like that’, ‘we would handle things this way’. We played the scenes on stage, corrected each other and developed the characters. Finally the script was written by a group of actors aged 15 – 17 whom offered me a piece of their personality.”

Your first reason for making the film was: stimulating discussion. Was it needed to open a public debate?
Raag: “Developing this idea since 2001, when in 2003 Gus van Sant made ELEPHANT my first reaction was: ‘oh boy, that guy did my film’. But his approach was different from mine: in my opinion you can’t make a film about violence without explaining. Random violence for me is the most deranging phenomenon that I can understand nor accept. That’s why I don’t give answers. I present a case study and hope the audience will discuss it in order to find answers to their questions.”

You were prepared for some controversy?
Raag: “From the very first beginning I realized KLASS would be controversial and some would say the film shows a bad example. That’s why I took precautions. On the iconographic level the shooting couldn’t be presented in a glamorous way. Shootings look cool as long as the shooter looks cool, and these boys don’t.
‘Revenge’ could never be a trump in promoting this film; KLASS is not a payback drama. The campaign was completely based on the film’s content: I wrote a blog about ethical dilemmas for the elderly audience and there was a word-of-mouth campaign on Internet communities. While shooting the film we didn’t allow any press coverage. The names of the cast were never revealed; I didn’t want ‘stardom’. The clips I posted on the Internet looked like amateur movies. The film wasn’t important; only the subject mattered.”

The girls don’t react much in KLASS. In real life they’re usually more motivated to protect the victims.
Raag: “The way the story was constructed left the girls with little choice. Anders, the bully, is a ladies’ man who wants control over the girls. He has his little favourites and it’s important for girls to be amongst the chosen ones. That’s why they don’t react.”

There’s little positive interaction from adults (teachers, parents,…). It seems impossible for them to intervene in a good way.
Raag: “The movie’s working title was BETWEEN OURSELVES. The opening lines about ‘honour’ make clear this is a conflict they want to fight between themselves. Calling for help from outsiders is considered treason. We all remember those moments as teenagers thinking: ‘those grown ups just don’t get it’.”

How did you use the camera as a tool to get under the skin of the actors?
Raag: “My method is simple: the actors play and the D.O.P should be able to capture their emotions. The actors weren’t professionals; if you clock their scenes too much, they might act too mechanical. We always did a wide angle master-shot first to capture the whole scene. In the next take we used a middle-shot for getting into details. Meanwhile I stood behind the cameraman to point him in the right direction. Very quick he learned how to read my thoughts and foresee my instructions.”

KLASS contains some shocking physical and sexual abuse. How discrete could you be?
Raag: “You can consider KLASS an essay on realism. Usually there’s little blood in fights amongst schoolboys. People fighting are often surprised their fights don’t look like what they’ve seen in movies. The fights were choreographed and we had a stuntman in the kicking scene. About the sexual abuse we agreed nothing would be shown. But when I first saw it in the editing room I was indeed surprised how suggestive the result looked.”

It must have been hard for the actors. Was there any form of psychological safety net?
Raag: “We had a psychologist on the set. That was probably the wisest decision I took and often her services were of great use. The day before shooting the scene in which they prepare their guns, we discussed about those youngsters’ physical state on that moment: lying awake all night, voices going through their heads, they must have felt like zombies. When the boys appeared on set next morning, they looked exactly like how we described it. It felt like a sick form of method acting. We found out that all night they had been discussing about suicide. The conversation went so deep under their skin that they couldn’t sleep.”

What do you expect from the audience in the final catastrophe? Can you understand them sympathizing with the boys while taking their violent revenge?
Raag: “We had a lot of discussions about the ending. Could we simply let them commit suicide? Then it would be just another sad movie – ‘how sad for those boys’. While I wanted to stimulate the audience in re-evaluating their own understandings. In every tragedy the victims have their own story. Remember 9/11, in the west it was considered the work of godless monsters; in the Arab world it was more often seen as ‘the death of the martyrs who finally found revenge for the humiliations they went through’.”

KLASS is not an easy film to promote. Is there a way in which the film can make an international career?
Raag: “KLASS is making an niche career on the Internet. The pirate version is popular in China, Russia and Ukraine. For a debuting filmmaker exposure is the most important, so I can settle with that… until my next movie (which will be a story about elderly women starting a new life). But on the Internet the explanative context is lacking. In that way the film can easily gain the reputation we always tried to avoid: a cool movie about revenge. And there’s no age control. People under 15 could easily interpret some of the emotions in a way it was never foreseen. Because the ideology of the film is based upon the perceptions of a 16 – 18 years old audience.”

Gert Hermans