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Paul Herbert’s 19-minute short film is a dystopian fantasy set in the near future in a prison-like language school for adult foreigners in Britain. It’s a 1984-like vision, where education has been reduced to box-ticking for weekly multiple-choice tests that are designed to be so easy that they are always passed, and teachers don’t give the lessons themselves, but are relegated to being mere screen minders to the Big Brother-like onscreen teacher, the Autoprof.
Both teachers and pupils alike are dressed in colour-coded boilersuits and they inhabit a bare, sparsely furnished building (a bare set design by Anne Bourmane). In this grim world, Virgil (Tim Hayward) is the Winston Smith figure, the cowed English-language teacher struggling to hold onto his meagre zero-hours contract, in fear of unemployment as newspaper headlines say that education is being slashed.
Then two events shake up his dismal life. A flirty new pupil, his Julia figure, Marie (Laila Rose Bouromane), whose number is 101, arrives in his class wearing the wrong uniform, and their eyes meet; and he is faced with the dilemma of having to fail a student’s test paper for the first time or falsify the mark – or rather, in the language of the script, where fail is a non-word, to ‘unpass’ it, a teaching failure that would have serious consequences for him.
The director of the language school, Mangle (John Gannon) is suitably dictatorial. He keeps autocratic order through his shaven-headed, brutal enforcer Butch (Tommie Grabiec). There’s an atmosphere of menace, where dehumanised individuals, known by numbers not names, are crushed by an inflexible system. Though the setting is clinically white, expressionistic lighting at times enhances threatening situations or individuals.
Written and directed by Paul Herbert, THE ENGLISH LESSON is a well-thought-through fable of a future of austerity and its effect on education and employment, and where it could be taking us, but with its twist-in-the-tail ending, it's a future in which the power of human contact may still manage to find a way around repression.
The film won an award at Canada Shorts, the Canadian and International Short Film Festival, and was in Official Competition at the Bucharest ShortCut Cinefest in November. It premiered at Glasgow Blueprint short film festival in September.
Paul Herbert has written, directed and produced five original short narrative films: Autumn Drift (2014), Winter Will (2014), The Flight of Iro and Casper (2015), The English Lesson (2016) & Air Tax, which is in post-production. He is currently developing a sixth short film and writing a screenplay for a feature.
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