As her new film The Kindergarten Teacher hits UK cinemas, American writer and director Sara Colangelo talks women in film and the power of poetry
When Sara Colangelo was approached to remake The Kindergarten Teacher – the 2014 Israeli film by Nadav Lapid about a creatively repressed educator and aspiring poet who forms a burgeoning obsession with one of her poetically gifted five-year-old students – she was somewhat hesitant. “I wasn’t sure that poetry could successfully be dramatised, or really understood in a cinematic medium. I worried about how it would translate, whether it would feel too intellectual,” she tells AnOther. “Then I saw the original, and while it’s very intellectual, it’s also very much about a woman’s journey, and I suddenly saw it as this exciting challenge – to make this film more my own, and include my experience of poetry within it.”
As child, Colangelo explains, she buried herself in the Gustave Doré-illustrated version of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and later the poetry of Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück and Mary Oliver, but upon reaching college she “stepped away from poetry” as her studies took precedence. “The gift of this film, in a certain sense, was being able to delve back into it,” she says. A turning point for Colangelo during her writing process was the discovery of a quote by American poet Carl Sandburg: “Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.” For Colangelo, this was not only a wonderful meditation on the power of poetry, but also the key to understanding her protagonist – the deeply complex Lisa, played in Colangelo’s film, with breathtaking nuance, by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
“I really like the first sentence in particular,” the director enthuses. “It helped me shape Lisa – a dissatisfied teacher who is trying to self-transform through poetry. Poetry is a majestic form of art that I think is necessarily expansive – it forces you to take a literal thing, words on paper, and move into the space of the abstract. It has a mystery to it; it flexes our muscles of empathy and summons the invisible. I shared the quote with Maggie while we were carving out Lisa’s character and it was really helpful in considering both poetry as a process of self-reflection, and this woman’s way of life – why she falls in love with poetry.” And indeed, it is Lisa’s transformation over the course of the film that proves its most compelling aspect, the result an extraordinary study of the perils of creative starvation.
We meet the 40-something Lisa in the throes of a midlife crisis: she feels a frustrating disconnect with her reliable husband and teenage children, in whom she has seemingly failed to inspire any semblance of cultural ambition. In the weekly poetry class she attends, her handsome teacher (Gael García Bernal) and classmates are skeptical of her work – she needs to put more of herself into it, she is told. One day, after school, she stumbles upon her young student, Jimmy (Parker Sevak), reciting a beautiful, naive poem of his own writing and something in her stirs. This small child, she believes, is a young Mozart, who without her help – Jimmy’s father is a largely absent nightclub owner – will fail to reach his full potential. As time progresses, we watch, with increasing horror, as this caring teacher’s dwindling hopes of creative fulfillment in her own life manifest themselves in a burgeoning desire to nurture Jimmy’s talent, her maternal good intentions descending into obsession.
The Kindergarten Teacher feels like a film that could only have been made by a woman – its finespun examination of a darker side of the female experience rings fresh and urgent. And indeed, the production was largely helmed by women. “There’s been a watershed moment,” says Colangelo, a keen advocate for women in film, and the owner of her own production company. “I feel it changing – men in the industry are understanding the need to create a space, and there’s been more focus on the dearth of female filmmakers generally. But at the higher levels, especially with studio films, there’s still lots of work to be done.”
Of course, she notes, the current political situation doesn’t help matters. “Regarding Trump, it’s a really difficult time for artists. It feels like there’s not much support out there and you can get really distressed by it. But for me the work is what keeps me afloat – it reminds me that we can change things. I hope that’s not too naive, but I do think that stories can change people’s perspectives and create a wave of positivity and reflection within a society.” And The Kindergarten Teacher, and its masterful probing of moral boundaries through a uniquely female lens, undoubtedly falls under that category.
The Kindergarten Teacher is in UK cinemas from today.