PARIS — Unpretentious, a bit self-conscious and ever the jokester, Esmeralda Ouertani is still navigating her way through sudden fame — and enjoying the ride.
Following the success of “The Class” (Entre les Murs), an Oscar-nominated documentary-style drama, life has returned to normal for the 16-year-old — more or less.
“Normal” now includes international travel, local publicity junkets to promote the film — which won the highest honor at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival — and strangers approaching to ask for autographs. She has been to Munich, New York, Vienna and Amsterdam, and soon will travel to Lithuania. What hasn’t changed: keeping up with schoolwork, drama classes, an active social life and running errands for her mother on the weekends.
“What we kept saying throughout is that we’re ordinary people having an extraordinary experience,” said Ouertani, who was plucked from obscurity to join the ensemble cast of other non-professional actors, namely her classmates and the teacher-writer, Francois Begaudeau. Playing a version of himself as the teacher, Begaudeau wrote the book on which the film, a gritty look inside a diverse Parisian junior high school, is based.
Our rendezvous point was a Starbucks coffee shop inside a bustling mall in central Paris. Wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt, Ouertani arrived promptly with her best friend in tow. The young women ordered raspberry frappuccinos and added extra sugar. “I’m not a star, I’m a cloud,” she quipped before bursting into laughter.
The film version of Ouertani was only a slight exaggeration of her real life self.
In person, she seemed full of nervous energy and alternated between moments of seriousness and intense giggles. When her friend, Mariam Jraied, accidentally used the French word for “disturbed” to try to explain the acronym ZEP, a label for the kind of school the movie portrayed, Ouertani burst into hysterical giggles. ZEP schools, located in “priority education zones,” were created beginning in the 1980s to address the needs of disadvantaged, at-risk youth and to stem high dropout and failure rates.
“She’s always a clown,” said Jraied, 16, adding that Ouertani was the sociable one who spoke to everyone, made friends easily and always tried to cheer people up on set. “We’re proud of her, especially her parents,” Jraied said.
Though the film barely leaves the school, the multi-hued faces on the screen were evocative of the real life neighborhood that exists beyond its walls, in Paris’ 20th district. The working-class neighborhood where Ouertani still lives with her parents, who are both currently unemployed, has large North African and sub-Saharan African communities. She credits her family with helping to keep her grounded.
“It’s not a neighborhood where we’re used to winning prizes,” Ouertani said, after half-jokingly describing it as a “ghetto.”
The film touches on issues of immigration and French identity, which are being discussed in France. In the story, a member of one student’s family faced possible deportation and the African mother of another student didn’t speak French, but needed to navigate the school system when her son got into trouble.
The themes also intersected with Ouertani’s life. In the film, she had a brief exchange about being proud of her Tunisian roots. In person, she said she was being provocative. Much of the film’s dialogue was improvised with skills the students honed during a year-long series of drama workshops leading up to the month-long shoot over their summer break.
“We touched on the various taboos,” said Ouertani, who would like to pursue acting as a career.
Her smile widened when she spoke about traveling to the United States for the film’s screening at the New York Film Festival. But her entire being lit up when she recalled the moment she and her fellow cast members learned they had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes — it was the first time in 21 years that a French film took the top award.
Ouertani beamed with pride and disbelief, as though it happened yesterday and not last May. She said she didn’t expect any of this, and snapped her fingers to punctuate her points.
The win was so unexpected that the cast almost missed it. The students were already on a bus, heading back to Paris after hobnobbing with celebrities, when the announcement was made. At a press conference discussing the jurors’ selections, head juror Sean Penn called “The Class” “magic,” saying, “It’s simply everything that you want film to give you.”
He could have chosen any film, Ouertani said of Penn, but he “really chose a film that had such little chance.”
“It was magnificent,” she said. “The best moment of my life, and it will stay that way.”
“The Class,” directed by Laurent Cantet, is rated PG-13 and comes out on DVD March 24.
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