A Review of This Teacher
By: Nicole Klein
Writer and director Mark Jackson’s third and most recent project confronts raw and ugly truths about some of the most insidious issues that still plague the United States to this day. Actress Hafsia Herzi plays a character of the same name, a young French Muslim woman vacationing in New York with her childhood friend Zahra ( Sarah Kazemy). Hafsia slowly but surely comes to the realization that the United States is not the egalitarian paradise she had hoped it was, especially not for someone of her ethnicity and faith. This is not a film about swastika-clad neo-Nazis nor is it about shrieking tiki-torch bearing white supremacists. This Teacher addresses a more subtle form of bigotry; the sort of bigotry whose origin is from those who do not outwardly express malicious prejudices. This powerful and unflinching look at the psychological effects of American bigotry is only enhanced by Jackson’s masterful use of subtle and unusual cinematographic techniques, editing techniques, and meaningful visual motifs. Though seemingly dry, This Teacher owes a great deal of its staying power not only to Jackson’s visual creativity, but to the deeply emotional performances of Herzi. This Teacher is by no means a perfect film, but its flaws are worth overlooking for the beautiful and well-constructed narrative this film conveys.
Mark Jackson’s prowess in this film’s visual language is on full display throughout. This Teacher is full of painterly and at times, haunting shot choices. This is especially evident whenever Hafsia is in nature. Long, slow pans across wide shots treat the sun-dappled trees of Central Park and the silent forests of Upstate New York with the same awe and reverence the protagonist treats them with. During night scenes in Hafsia’s small candle-lit cabin, Jackson chooses to use visual techniques often found in horror cinema. Hafsia’s anxiety is enhanced by fast-paced editing and a forest filmed in such a way that makes typical night-darkness feel alive and unnatural. This fast-paced editing carries over into scenes of the hustle-and-bustle of New York City, though I felt that these scenes could have been weightier had the pace of Jackson’s cuts been slightly slower.
Perhaps the most compelling and narratively synergistic use of filmic visuals in This Teacher comes not from its cinematography or editing, but from clever use of its mise-en-scène’s visual motif, namely, the color white. The color itself seems to reflect Hafsia’s anxieties over social and racial whiteness. White blankets the living and working spaces of her assimilationist best friend, Zahra. (Sarah Kazemy) . Harsh white light coats the streets and subways of New York City. White even appears in Hafsia’s sanctuary: the forest. It appears as objects on her person, as light glinting off pristine streams and the foam of frothing waterfalls. White halos Hafsia’s head in her moments of despair, moments where she feels defeated by whiteness.
Yet none of these masterful visual techniques would have been nearly as powerful if not for the cutting and deeply emotional performance of its lead actress. Though seemingly wooden early into This Teacher’s runtime (this may have been intentional), Herzi offers a raw and uncompromising view into her similarly-named protagonist’s psyche. Her anxieties are palpable and her moments of peace are almost supernaturally serene. Her emotions are visceral, realistic, and thought provoking. At times one may find themselves engaging in armchair psychology when watching Hafsia suffer.
There, however, was a flaw in the narrative. It seemed as though this film couldn’t decide between being grounded in realism or delving into magical realism. There are moments where Hafsia seems to possess supernatural abilities. At times, Hafsia is made out to be a kind of ‘messianic’ character, complete with some of the otherworldly abilities that would entail. While most of these moments can reasonably be interpreted as simply a reflection of Hafsia’s tumultuous inner state, one of these moments offers no such alternative explanation.
Though as flawed and fallible as its protagonist, This Teacher is a poignant film that more than delivers its fair share of tense drama and topical social commentary. This Teacher offers up a sharp and biting critique of American bigotry at its most subtle; bigotry that cloaks itself in flowery words and uninformed assumptions. This Teacher’s social commentary is visual in nature. Director Mark Jackson has crafted a unique narrative, one that is enhanced by his mastery of visual techniques and by the superb acting of its lead, Hafsia Herzi. Despite its flaws, This Teacher is a harrowing character-study whose lessons cannot be ignored.