The vast majority of the action of The Unword takes place in an after-school parent-teacher conference, like a bottle episode. I was delighted to find it was really funny, despite being about the grim subject of antisemitic bullying. All the humour and drama unfolds as pompous, self-assured school officials sit down to put the world to rights, but find the world is a slippery customer and talks back.
Max outs himself as Jewish in a class lesson on the Holocaust, and meets with hostility from Karim, a Palestinian refugee kid. Max’s best mate Reza, who is Iranian-German, vows to stand by him, but as Karim forms a bloc between the Muslim minority kids and the white Jewish kids, Reza is swept up by social pressure. After lengthy bullying, which the school turns a blind eye to, Max finally lashes out, breaking Reza’s nose and biting off part of Karim’s ear. Hence the parent-teacher conference.
What I always found so frustrating at school, was the way adults would act like just because you were kids, you somehow didn’t live in the world. They would teach you about issues as if no one in the class knew anything about them, as if we were all visitors to planet earth and hadn’t set foot on it yet. Whether it was drink, drugs, bullying, or discrimination, they would act like we needed to be informed because we couldn’t possibly yet have experienced any of these things. In classes where there was a clear pecking order, one non-white kid, and everyone knowing whose parents were alkies or junkies. In primary school, we could all tell you who was poor, whose Mum raked bins, whose parents were mad, whose family was in and out prison, who stole, who sniffed glue, who was half-crazy already. And those realities were never acknowledged.
Something which The Unword captures perfectly. Because while the teacher seems perfectly at ease teaching about historical antisemitism, she can’t actually deal with the actual antisemitism she can see in front of her. The ‘unword’, one character explains, is Jew. Because “that’s not possible in Germany, because you can’t talk about Jews. Dead Jews in history books, fine. Living Jews, no way.”
What I liked about The Unword is no one in it is an arsehole. They might act like an arsehole, but it doesn’t let the audience off the hook by just making characters bad or caricatures. These are all people with their own traumas, with their own motivations, inheriting power dynamics they did not create.
Which is not to say any behaviour is excused, there is a clear and explicit condemnation of antisemitism and the complicit silence which tolerates it. But it shows up, both with humour and drama, how we have still yet to find ways of tackling these issues. The well-meaning but ineffective teacher is trying to teach about what happens when you ignore the dangers of antisemitism, in a class where she is ignoring antisemitism in order to get through her lesson plan.
The Unword starts with adults sitting down to calmly discuss the squabbles of children, only to find the issues their kids are facing are beyond their ability to resolve. With humour and warmth, The Unword takes us through an unpleasant subject, hoping we can laugh when we see our own awkwardness, and perhaps see it as less of a stumbling block to doing the right thing.