Karlovy Vary 2021 review: The Staffroom (Sonja Tarokić)

Sonja Tarokić’s The Staffroom centres on the internal politics of a school. School politics is a subject regularly treated in television drama but relatively rare as a cinematic piece, at least insofar as the narrative drive mostly omits children (who form a sort of cacophonous background) in favour of the teaching staff, a school counsellor and the headteacher. Says Tarokić:

“The idea for this film was certainly influenced by the fact that I have grown up in a family of psychologists and have been surrounded by their stories about the social system all my life. School is a specific system in which people often spend their whole life within the same group of colleagues in the same staffroom, closely connected by friendships, opinions and prejudices.”

Our central protagonist is Anamarija (Marina Redžepović), the school counsellor. To avoid some confusion this isn’t a school counsellor as we might usually expect (a therapist who works directly with children and groups) but more of a free-floating emotional problem-solver endlessly triangulating between the needs of students, the anguish of parents and the spite or indifference of the teaching staff. Elsewhere she would likely be called a pastoral lead or behaviour management lead. She is new, well-intentioned, highly competent with the students, but less capable and lost in the machinations of the staff politics into which she is regularly thrust.

The film seems to strike at dual goals: on the one hand it is happy to sit comfortably in a school, mostly in the titular staffroom, and float around encouraging a milieu of social tension to show itself through fragments of conversation, furtive glances, and barely contained emotions; while on the other there is a very definite central storyline based on a key tension. The tension in The Staffroom comes from asking the question: what happens when someone inside a system is dangerous, a risk to staff and children alike, but the checks and balances that should protect us don’t function as they are meant?

The first goal is remarkably achieved. Having worked in schools, I can tell you The Staffroom feels like a documentary. The actors look like teachers, feel like teachers and converse like teachers. The pettiness is real, the humor, the worry, the pigheadedness, the charm, the general loathing of parents, the odd feeling of indifference to children, all of it real – and given this is a Croatian film, it’s evidently universal. I can imagine Russian, Canadian, Chinese, or Senegalese teachers alike watching this film thinking “yup”. A lot of this film feels reminiscent of Robert Altman for whom the socially concocted geist of a space was as much a character as the protagonists. Here that staffroom is a heavy red protagonist, almost oppressive, early folk art of people on the walls. We are learning that the filmmaker intends us to notice something ceaseless about the human din.

The second goal, an actual story (that itself is a metaphor), doesn’t fully convince me, but that isn’t to say there aren’t remarkable things to find within it. A history teacher, Siniša (Stojan Matavulj), is videotaped during a class by a student as he is rambling to other students about murder plots against him. He is deeply paranoid, risky, and likely has become very unwell as he has aged. He is so overwhelmed by a narrative of paranoia and self-pitying narcissism that he is no longer functioning as a teacher. Anamarija sees the video, and when it is combined with other evidence, feels compelled to inform the headteacher. The Head (Nives Ivankovic) refuses to take action, and therein increases the drama as Siniša gets worse and Anamarija is taken to greater task for highlighting the risk than the person actually posing the risk. There is so much to this, a sort of reverse Kafkaesque scenario where the systems are likely robust and clear but entirely dependent on the sound application by a Head who is herself something of a monster.

Marina Redžepović’s central character of Anamarija is a charismatic, though somewhat unknowable lead, and Redžepović’s good performance holds the film together well enough. Opposite her, Nives Ivankovic as the headteacher is recognisable as that classic self-obsessed grifter, confusing the role of holding the school together with the role of holding herself above reproach. Again, fully real.

Where this film shines, however, is in the portrayal of the history teacher Siniša, a great performance by Matavulj. There are within his portrayal of a narcissist, paranoid middle-aged man elements of cultural or historic Croatian reference I can’t speak to (likely coloured by war, Communism, the forming of a new country). But there were universal elements of a broken, dejected patriarchy that I strongly recognised and reacted to viscerally. What cleverness by the filmmaker to have him dressed in a hunting gilet (the look is perfect); he manages to be both hangdog and smug, knowing and yet clueless. He is the embodiment of an impotent man, losing his wits, raging at the invisible. A sequence where Anamarija befriends him and he takes a new liking to her reminded me of countless times in my work with criminals, when violent or antagonistic men confused my professional kindness with friendship because their antagonism always makes them agonisingly lonely. That blending of charm with power, with vulnerability and madness, does much to bring meaning to the film. I almost wish the film was entirely centred on him.

The end of the film, a subtle one, sees Anamarija learn finally that there is no rescue for her; if she is to be safe in this place it is because she is more clever than the others. It is because she will have learnt to navigate their very worst characteristics rather than their best (this is played out nicely as a teacher seems to receive a perfectly worded letter from a ‘parent’ that ticks all of the boxes of her vanity). It’s treated as something of a new dawn but on closer inspection is rather nihilistic, if not positively Machiavellian.

What to like in The Staffroom? The performances, the sense of a school at breaking point, the sense of the ‘real’. It is very effective in putting the viewer in a place as a somewhat dumbfounded bystander.

But there were things I couldn’t quite make work for me. The film is long, with perhaps a few too many digressions that weren’t fascinating viewing. And I’m not sure I buy the central storyline. As real as the film ‘feels’, it didn’t seem real in how the story played out. I don’t believe Siniša would still be teaching – that would be insane (at one point he’s urinating on the schoolgrounds!). Overall, reining in his excess would have made it a little more potent, confusing the viewer as to their feelings about him (is he unwell, or not? In this case he’s unambiguously unwell and pushes the story a little hard). I don’t believe a lot of the machinations with the school board, or inspectors, or how teachers would respond to a risky student and the aftermath of an incident. The problem is that it doesn’t quite make sense to create deeply real, battle-hardened teachers (and a counsellor) as characters and then have them react to things that frankly would happen every day in a school environment (complaining parents, behavioural issues) as though they are encountering them for the first time. Anamarija herself has likely been a teacher/counsellor for at least ten years – she can’t properly be written as a sort of wide-eyed ingenue when it suits the script. In this I feel the author’s voice as too present; finding drama in the daily activities of a school (no bad thing) but losing sight of how common they would be for the protagonists, because they aren’t common to her. The result is, amongst some good drama, some weird scenes and dynamics involving the school board, and one with a bottle of water and the headteacher I am still scratching my head over.

See The Staffroom because it is a good slice of vérité, and for the good acting, but perhaps not because it has a cohesive, balanced and wholly realised story to tell.