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New Belgian drama Playground is like The Sopranos, but with children

Director Laura Wandel discusses her new film, which captures the claustrophobic terror of a being a kid at school

Playground is a convincing argument that actors peak before the age of 10. Comprising pre-teen leads, Laura Wandel’s Brussels-set thriller stays entirely with seven-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) as she navigates the daily hell that is school. With the camera always lowered to Nora’s eye level, Vanderbeque is pure emotion, a bundle of nerves about to fray. Add in the visceral nature of a storyline about bullying, Playground is a film that will leave viewers with bruises – as well as reopening a few scars.

So much so, Wandel, who also wrote the script, has been flooded with personal responses since its Cannes premiere. “People have thanked me for putting on screen something they’d experienced and had never found a way of expressing,” the 38-year-old Belgian director tells me, via an interpreter, at the Mayfair Hotel during the London Film Festival. “I’ve got a feeling that people blackout that period, and just forget it. And yet it’s a period that really forms us.”

Nora, you suspect, will discuss what happens to a therapist when she’s an adult, if not sooner. Upon joining a new school, the shy girl is already in tears from sheer nerves and then, in the canteen, she’s curiously shunned by her older brother, Abel (Günter Duret). The reason, Nora learns, is that Abel is routinely bullied, both verbally and physically, to the extent that his head gets shoved down a toilet. While Nora recognises that Abel is trying to protect her, she can’t stand idly. However, when she informs a teacher, the situation worsens greatly. More troublingly, in a playground at lunchtime, there’s nowhere to hide.

To highlight the 360-degree, almost videogame-esque terror of a being a kid at school, Wandel repeatedly shoots over Nora’s shoulder, Dardennes-style, using a special harness to lower the camera. “It was a huge challenge to be at the height of children who pretty much have never acted before,” the director notes. “But when you write, you try not to think about the challenge, otherwise you won’t do anything.”

Vanderbeque was cast when she was seven years old, shortly before the shoot. “What helped me get to know Maya, actually, was that I taught her to swim,” Wandel says. “But with the children, we worked for three months and they never received the script.” The preparation was divided into three parts. Stage one: learn how to avoid looking at the camera. Stage two: discuss the themes, then learn how to improvise short scenes in character. “And the third stage was to draw that scene. So they had a book of every little moment, and that book was visually the script.

“Throughout the shoot, they could look at their book, and see their picture for that scene. They were reading the script, but as images. Because they’re children who had never acted before, I knew we had to adapt ourselves to them, so that they could always be playing and developing, and not get bored.”

Sometimes it’s like watching The Sopranos with children. They presumably weren’t improvising their fighting styles? “A stunt person showed them how to hit without it hurting. There was a technique there.” The young actors worked with puppets and spent months preparing for each sequence. “We had a system for a safe space. When we rang the bell, you became the character you’re playing. When the bell stopped, it’s you again.”

When these fights unfold, adults are both present and absent. Although teachers lurk in the background and parents drops off kids by the gates, everyone whose age is in double-figures is oblivious to the playground politics. To make matters more confusing, the kids routinely lie to their supervisors. However, when critics at Cannes called it a prison movie set in a school, it took Wandel by surprise. “It’s true that it’s an enclosed space with its own world,” she says. “But I didn’t write it as if it were a prison.”

Perhaps, then, the raw emotions on display are simply due to casting children too young to develop egos. For instance, Wandel didn’t show the junior performers any rushes, and the first time they saw the film was at Cannes. “Adult actors have a tendency to reproduce a mannerism or something mechanical that they know works. In this context, the children didn’t have that.”

Despite its Belgian setting, Playground has resonated globally. At Cannes, it picked up the FIPRESCI Prize, while the London Film Festival awarded it the Sutherland Trophy; Wandel was then nominated for Discovery of the Year at the European Film Awards. “I really tried to make it universal,” the director says. “That’s why the football pitch takes up the majority of the playground space. I had a book full of playgrounds around the world, and there’s always a crazy situation where the child who doesn’t want to play football has to stay on the edge.”

Wandel’s already writing her next film, which, if she sticks to her plan, will follow a paediatrician in a hospital. She cryptically tells me, “It’ll ask, ‘How do you help the other person?’” When I query what that actually means, she refuses to elaborate or say what it’s called. “It might change. But I’ve already started immersive research.”

Until the editing stage, Playground was going to be named The Birth of Trees, a phrase that references “the origin of all things, and something that takes its roots and then grows”. The real title, though, is what it’s called in Belgium: Un monde. “In French, the title translates to ‘a world’, which corresponds with what I made: it’s Nora’s world, the world of the school, from her point of view.”

For many viewers, entering Nora’s world is really re-entering one’s own childhood with an adult’s perspective. Given that Belgian schools ban smartphones, Playground feels timeless in its interrogation of the human condition. It thus raises the question of whether kids outgrow bullying or simply learn to disguise it, especially as society is populated with adults who lie, play mind-games, and operate in microaggressions. Perhaps Playground should have been called The Birth of Trees, after all.

So I ask Wandel if she’s heard from adults who realised that they, in fact, were bullies themselves? “Absolutely,” she says. “But I tried to show that the origin of violence is suffering – a pain that hasn’t been recognised. When a person experiences pain or violence, there’s often no way of expressing it, and so it turns itself over, and they become a bully.”

But when she interviewed children during the scripting stage, surely none of them defined themselves as bullies? “It’s hard. I don’t like using labels like ‘bully’. In fact, the problem is when people put labels on others. There’s a fine line between the victim, the bully, and the person who witnesses it.” The complexity of Playground is that Abel, to survive, becomes a bully himself, while Nora, a bystander, is arguably complicit in the food chain. “In our lives, we’ve all played those parts and perhaps not been aware of it,” Wandel continues. “It’s a problem in society that everything has to be labelled and be black or white. But things are so much more nuanced. It’s delicate.”

Playground is out in UK cinemas on April 22