Reel Review: Berlinale's Favoriten film is a favorite with Gerd Gemünden

I just returned from the Berlin Film Festival. Among the many films I saw, one clearly stuck out: Favoriten, by Austrian director Ruth Beckermann. It'll probably be a while until it will be available in the US, but for those traveling to Austria or Germany this summer, look out for it in the cinemas!

The film portrays a class of third graders in Vienna's largest elementary school, most of them hailing from migrant family backgrounds from Syria, Turkey or the former Yugoslavia. Right away, the film throws us into the midst of a busy classroom where teacher Ilkay Idiskut leads her 25 charges in a dance session. We observe Ilkay teaching math, German, art and music, and instructing her students on how to resolve controversy with respect and patience. None of the students have a native speaker of German as their parent, and there are no resources available to help with incomplete language skills—a shortcoming in the Austrian educational system no single individual can make up for, no matter their dedication. The point about the students' multicultural background is introduced in a very subtle and quite humorous way when the class visits the famed Stephansdom. With a sense of shock, the priest comes to realize that not a single student comes from a Roman Catholic background—his plea to understand the cathedral as "our" cathedral goes entirely unregistered.

In the classroom, Johannes Hammel's hand-held camera is at all times at arms-length, catching the children in intimate, unmediated moments because they consider its presence as something natural. While the film mostly maintains an observational, fly-on-the-wall approach, Beckermann repeatedly makes her presence felt. At one point, she even turns the students into filmmakers by providing them with phones (though no internet access). Their footage of interviewing each other makes Favoriten a self-portrait of curious, opinionated, and utterly relatable ten-year-olds who have not yet had to learn some of life's harder lessons. When at the end of the film Ilkay bids her class farewell, due to an upcoming maternity leave, the last class turns into teary lament for both teacher and students, not least because the underfunded school has not yet been able to identify a substitute teacher.

Favoriten was filmed over three years, from third grade to fifth grade, at which point the Austrian school system divies up students into those who will go on to higher education (and subsequently the university), and those who'll end up with fewer educational and employment choices. Out of the 25 students in Ilkay's class, only five will qualify for the first track, with language being the decisive factor in almost all cases. While the film is a celebration of an extraordinary teacher and her students, it is also an indictment of a system that perpetuates inequality.