Israeli-born filmmaker Hanan Harchol continues to hope that his autobiographical movie and feature film debut, “About a Teacher,” will be released in movie theaters down the road. Still, when he posted a trailer for the film online and received more than 5,000 views and enthusiastic comments from teachers around the world, he said he appreciated the possibilities for his movie on a digital platform.
Released on Amazon Prime on April 7, the film recounts the roller-coaster experiences of a New York City school teacher, not coincidentally named Hanan Harchol (Dov Tiefenbach), as he attempts to teach filmmaking to a group of indifferent, disruptive and/or otherwise troubled inner-city students in a magnet school. It’s a feel-good story as he makes the journey from self-indulgent nebbish to devoted mentor while the kids (mostly played by former students) are transformed in the process.
Like his onscreen alter ego — a classical guitarist, artist and animator — Harchol found himself unemployed in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. As a stopgap measure, he landed a teaching gig, falsely believing it would be an easy ride with lots of free time to pursue his artistic interests. It was anything but. Initially, it was a nightmare. Now, almost 12 years later, he’s still at the school and loving it.
Simultaneously, he was (and is) disheartened by the ongoing stereotypes about teachers, especially as depicted on the screen. They are either laid-back and lazy or unrelentingly heroic. He felt compelled to forge a movie that would tell it like it is. Teachers come on board with no preparation to face chaos in the classroom and unremitting administrative demands. Demoralization, failure and burnout are built in, and it’s not the teacher’s fault, despite being dumped on for all of society’s ills.
“My challenge was to create an engaging, authentic film that was not a white male savior movie, which is very typical in these films,” Harchol told the Journal in a phone conversation from his Los Angeles home. “Avoiding that was the biggest obstacle, and to overcome it I focused on showing the crappy job the teacher is doing. He’s narcissistic. It’s all about him when, in fact, it’s not about the teacher. It’s about the students. The title is ironic.”
Asked if he experienced any anti-white or anti-Semitic expression in the classroom, his answer is a resounding, “No.” On the contrary, he said, his sense of “otherness” and lack of connection came from within.
“I went to a high school outside Princeton [N.J.] where there were very few African Americans,” he said. “Suddenly, I was in a school that was [at the time] 4% white. I felt very out of place and for the first time, I felt like a minority. It was a very humbling and educational experience for me.”
And then, after his first terrible year at the school, he created a series of short animated features for the Covenant Foundation that, among other things, promotes Jewish values and education. His animated snippets present conversations between a father and son centering on ethical issues — love, kindness, humility — as seen through a Jewish lens of tolerance and a willingness to view those who may be different favorably. Harchol brought those values to the teaching table along with the Danielson methodology that advocates student-centered, student-led classrooms, where an intensely prepared teacher serves as an engaging and thought-provoking guide.
“My challenge was to create an engaging, authentic film that was not a white male savior movie.” — Hanan Harchol
So, how did he find an actor to play himself? It wasn’t easy, but he eventually landed on Tiefenbach, ( “Crashing,” “Homeland”), who evokes a Woody Allen-ish figure onscreen. The actor admits playing the role was a daunting task. His goal was interpretation, not impersonation, yet he felt compelled to capture Harchol’s gait, vocal style and his persona, which embodies an intangible Jewish anxiety.
“He is purpose-driven, cerebral, walks quickly, and eating for him feels like a waste of time when he could be doing other things, which means he eats as rapidly as possible in order to get to those more important things,” the Canadian-born Tiefenbach, who now lives in L.A., told the Journal.
Because of time restraints, Tiefenbach regrets he wasn’t able to immerse himself in the teacher’s day-to-day classroom experiences in a New York public school. He did, however, teach for five years in a juvenile hall facility in California, and those encounters proved fertile ground for him, specifically “coming into a session with the intention of changing the kids’ lives only to be met by resistance,” Tiefenbach recalled. “I was not able to understand the students I was trying to help. I was righteous about what I had to teach them as opposed to being open to what they had to teach me.”
Like Harchol, Tiefenbach was vaguely conscious of himself as a Jew in a setting that was largely minority for him. Also, as a Canadian, he faced further obstacles. In Canada, for example, gangs are virtually nonexistent, thanks in part to the number of social programs that support troubled youths.
“I had never met anyone with a tattoo on his face,” Tiefenbach said. “The difference between rich and poor is far greater in the States than it is in Canada. The issue I had to answer is, ‘Can we relate as human beings or is relatability dependent on shared cultural currency?’ I’ve concluded it is what you think it is. I learned to speak to the kids from a place we could all understand.”
Tiefenbach hopes audiences leave the film appreciating “what it means if your heart is closed off to those who need your help. Harchol is a man who opened his heart. I’d like to think audiences will try to do the same.”
Simi Horwitz is an award-winning feature writer and film reviewer based in New York.