A scene from Miss Kiet’s Children with Branche, left, and Haya (Icarus Films)

In a small Dutch village near the Belgian border, Kiet Engels teaches a class of mixed-age, elementary level students who are new arrivals to the country. Migrants and refugees, most of the children don’t speak Dutch, and many are from war-torn countries like Syria, where schooling has become impossible. “Miss,” as the students call her, must teach them how to speak, read, and write in Dutch, as well as perform basic math skills, and help them ultimately to transition into classrooms with their Dutch peers. Viewers who expect these young war refugees to exhibit overt symptoms of posttraumatic stress will be surprised at how often they are reminded of their own elementary school experience.

Miss Kiet provides a perfect mix of loving but firm direction to her students as she teaches basic educational concepts and behavioral expectations. But directors Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster have chosen to keep their focus on the children, capturing a range of expressions, whispered comments, and furtive activity as Miss Kiet circulates around the classroom. During the first half, the mischievous Haya takes the spotlight. At first appearance needy, Haya proves remarkably resourceful when it comes to attention seeking, and she borders on being a bully.  When the diminutive Leanne first arrives to the classroom, Haya wastes no time in proving whose boss, but Haya’s bravado is soon exposed as a cover for her own fears.

During the second half, Jorj and his brother Maksim take center stage. Newly arrived from Syria, both boys suffer from nightmares and disturbed sleep. Maksim clings to the older Jorj, who takes on the role of class clown to disguise his insecurities. Miss Kiet balances a firm hand with sensitivity and understanding to help the boys adjust to their new situations.

Classroom learning is interspersed with efforts to help the children mix in with the Dutch students and to see themselves as part of their new community. Imaginative play is used creatively, sometimes incorporating costumes or having the children pretend they are characters from a familiar story. A mirror is used during one such exercise in which the children are encouraged to look at themselves as they play their part. For some of the children, it’s as if they are seeing themselves for the first time. Perhaps the most poignant part of the film is when Jorj can’t be cajoled into looking at all.

This Dutch film (with English subtitles) is almost entirely comprised of nearly two hours of footage observing children in their day-to-day classroom routine. American viewers are likely to find it tedious, but those who stick with it will come away with a better understanding of what keeps teachers like Miss Kiet inspired. The film successfully captures, with patience and empathy, the progression of small daily accomplishments that help these children of war begin to recover and to recognize that they have finally reached a place where they can be safe.

Miss Kiet’s Children is accompanied by a short film by Trine Vallevik Habjorg, “When I Hear the Birds Sing.”  Simple animation, comprised primarily of line drawings interspersed with bright blocks of color, relates portions of interviews with five children (conducted in 2013) who are living in a refugee camp in the Nimba province of Liberia.  All five had fled the war that broke out in Ivory Coast after the presidential election in 2010. Recorded in each child’s own voice are their hopes and dreams for the future, descriptions of their escape and loved ones they’ve lost, and the things that help them cope. Like the artwork, music composed and performed by Kouame Sereba lends a feeling of poignancy and hope to the children’s situation. Brief but impactful, it is a fitting accompaniment to the feature documentary.

Directed by Petra Lataster-Czisch and Peter Lataster
Released by Icarus Films
Dutch and Arabic with English subtitles
The Netherlands. 113 min. Not rated