Can the Holocaust Bring Kids Together?
By Skip Sheffield
Imagine if the Holocaust could bring together a multiracial, alienated, antagonistic group of high school youth in a French suburb, and go on to win a national prize?
That is the premise of “Once in a Lifetime,” and the best part is it is true.
The script was co-written by director Marie-Castille Mention-Schaar with Ahmed Drame, who plays one of the students, Malik, an aspiring filmmaker. Drame was a 10th grade student at Lycee Leon Blum in 2009. He was a participant in a class project proposed by History and Art teacher Anne Gueguen (Ariane Ascaride). The subject was a heavy one: the child victims of the Holocaust in Nazi concentration camps.
To set the stage, we see a Muslim girl being refused to receive her diploma because she insisted in wearing her Habib.
“I’m proud to be a Muslim,” she declares.
On top of the usual teenage rivalries, there is an undercurrent of anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish sentiment in what was once a mostly Christian student body. The influx of refugees from the Muslim former French colony of Algeria has greatly taxed France’s infrastructure, and nowhere is it felt more keenly than among the young. We see everyday acts of cruelty and brutality between the ethnic types.
Calmly and methodically, Mrs. Gueguen tends her unruly herd; setting ground rules: no caps, no headphones in class. We see the subtle power Mrs. Gueguen wields when she takes a day off to attend her mother’s funeral. The class goes wild under the poor substitute teacher. When Mrs. Gueguen returns (after being reprimanded by the school principal), she shocks with a dose of reality when she invites a Holocaust survivor to speak to the class. Leon Zyguel speaks with such passion and eloquence he moves the students to tears. Finally they are willing to work in small groups as part of a larger team to compete in the National Contest for Resistance and Deportation.
For those who despair about the youth of today, this movie provides a beacon of hope. If it can work in an unruly, multicultural school in France, perhaps it could in the USA.