Film Movement has acquired U.S. rights to rising Belgian filmmaker Laura Wandel’s critically acclaimed feature debut “Playground” (“Un Monde”) which opened at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and won the Fipresci award. Paris-based Indie Sales represents the film in international markets.

Tackling the timely issue of school bullying, “Playground” went on to play at the San Sebastian and the BFI film festivals. The heart-wrenching film follows 7-year-old Nora (Maya Vanderbeque) and her older brother Abel (Günter Duret) going back to school. When Nora witnesses Abel being bullied by other kids, she rushes to protect him by warning their father, but Abel forces her to remain silent. Caught in a conflict of loyalty, Nora will ultimately try to find her place, torn between children’s and adult’s worlds.

“The film is utterly unique — what Laura has accomplished with these children is an incredible feat of filmmaking,” said Michael Rosenberg, Film Movement’s president. He added that the film “heralds the arrival of a new important film director on the scene. It is one of the most riveting pictures we’ve screened in recent memory.”

Wandel was previously at Cannes with her short film “Foreign Bodies” (“Les Corps Étrangers”) which competed at the festival and revolved around an injured man trying to cope with his disabled body with the help of a physiotherapist.

Wandel reteamed with her “Foreign Bodies” producer Stéphane Lhoest at Dragons Films. Jan de Clercq co-produced at Lunanime.

The director said she worked on “Playground” for five years and conducted thorough research to tell the story as authentically as possible. “It was crucial for me to create a fictional story that’s firmly based on reality, on first-hand observation,” said Wandel.

“I wanted to understand the issue of school bullying from different perspectives, so I attended mediations at school, watched kids play, talked to them and also had them role play so that they also could understand how bullying works and feel empathy,” said the helmer. She pointed out the film highlights the psychological mechanism of bullying, showing that victims and perpetrators often get stuck in vicious circles. “School bullies have often been harassed themselves or are carrying some kind of suffering and they end up inflicting on others,” she said.

“Playground’s” singularity lies in the fact that the story is told through the eyes of 7-year-old Vanderbeque and focused exclusively on what happens inside the school between her, her brother, their classmates and teachers. Their father, played by up-and-coming French actor Karim Leklou (“Bac Nord”) has a minor supporting role. His scenes are limited to when he drops off and picks off the children from school.

“The school’s playground is a micro-society and it’s riveting to watch a child leave the family nest and go on a journey to integrate because it reflects our basic needs as human beings to be acknowledged and to belong,” said Wandel. The film is deeply universal because school bullying is experienced by children around the world.

Vanderbeque, who was cast among 200 other children and is present in nearly every shot, delivers an impressive performance, as does her on-screen brother Günter Duret. Wandel described Vanderbeque as an acting prodigy and said she got to help cast the other children for the film.

Working with children on such an emotionally challenging film required a three-month preparation. “We only had 25 days to shoot the film so it was important to get the children well-prepared and comfortable with each other and with the camera. In order to help them feel their characters’ emotions and visualize the scenes, we had them to draw each scene and we also had improvise some scenes during rehearsals,” explained the director.

“I worked with the children on a lot of things, not only their lines; we even taught them how to swim,” said Wandel, who cited Jacques Doillon’s “Ponette” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “White Balloon” as inspiration for the film.

“As with my short, ‘Playground’ is about fraternity, about rehabilitation; it’s a message of hope which says that by helping and connecting with others we can end a cycle of violence.”