lIt’s been quite a year for Brussels-born director Laura Wandel. Last July, her feature film debut Playground premiered at the Cannes Film Festival; Since then, this virginal drama about the psychological minefield of the schoolyard has garnered awards and admiration at festivals around the world and became Belgium’s entry for the Oscar for best international feature film of 2022.
Playground is about a seven-year-old girl named Nora who must quickly adjust to the social order of her new school with older children, including her brother, Abel, who must overcome his own obstacles in the form of a bully. “What I was interested in,” says Wandel, “is a young child leaving the world of their family and facing a new society. We find the challenge of integration at many stages of our lives – this need to belong.” This, she says, is made all the more complicated by the ties of the sibling relationship: “When you enter this new society, what are you willing to let go of? What are you willing to become?”
Perhaps the most striking thing about the film is the way it immerses the viewer in the unnerving hubbub and tension of the school environment. From the first moment – when Nora clings to her father in tears at the school gate – to the last moment, the camera stays at Nora’s eye level. “It took me a long time – five years – to write the script,” she says. “I went and spent a lot of time in schools. I needed a refresh. I couldn’t base everything on my personal history and memory.”
“I felt the angle was the best way for the spectator to feel fully immersed in that experience, to be at that level and, hopefully, reconnect with their own childhood.” Adults who appear in the film are often cropped at the waist, like the adults in cartoons, although Wandel is adamant that her film is not judgmental about how they handle the situations that arise. “It meant that when you see them, it’s because they’re suddenly on their haunches; they really listen, they really hear and try to connect directly with each other.”
This compositional device creates a powerful visual effect, but it presumably put more pressure on the child actors, especially Maya Vanderbeque, who plays Nora. Wandel says she felt the only way to make this happen was to get the kids involved in the creative process. “The kids never received the script. It was very important to me that it wasn’t adult dialogue in children’s mouths.” Instead, Wandel worked with a specialist teacher who helped her devise a system for developing the action. “We worked with the children for three months. We would give them a situation and discuss with them where they would go. We worked in a way that then led them to, roughly, what was in the script.” It meant bringing something of their own into the film and actively participating in the creative process. What about the references to TikTok? Hiker laughs. “TikTok came from them.”
The casting process for Vanderbeque involved seeing more than 200 children. “I asked them to draw the playground and tell them what games they were playing,” recalls Wandel. “I just did that in front of the camera, she exploded the screen.” Playground both adopts her perspective, but also allows her face to act as a receiver for things that take place outside the box. “Working with what’s happening off screen is something I love because it gives the viewer space to experience, to live.” This is partly the reason that Playground’s enveloping soundscape works like a score. “Every scream or cry you hear,” says Wandel, “is put very specifically at that moment to heighten the fear. The brutality of the playground is conveyed by the noise.”
This ultimately creates the chaotic environment in which Nora has to find and map out her own way. “Of course Nora discovers violence, but she also discovers goodness and kindness, which is what I wanted to investigate.”