Back to school
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Date: 12 August, 2003
Directed by Nicolas Philibert
Reviewed by Catherine von Ruhland
A documentary following the year in the life of a primary school hardly sounds like a riveting basis for an award-winning film.
Yet Nicolas Philibert's deeply humane, often humorous focus on a French rural one-class ecole and the ordinary characters who work there are ironically what make it so special.
If, as Christians are often told, church is not the building but the people in it, then so too school. Here, warm-hearted teacher Georges Lopez presides over a tiny class of primary school children who range in age from toddler to pre-teen.
There are some real characters among the children. Cleverly, Philibert homes in on the universal concerns of different age groups via these individuals. Mischievous little Jo-Jo - all paint-splattered hands and a pencil up his nostril - is perhaps the star of the film but audiences can't help but be engrossed too by the unfurling of his mind as he comes to realise that counting is infinite.
Toughies Julien and Olivier, both built like farmhands, are learning what friendship and loyalty are, even as they look set to go their separate ways as they move on to secondary school. And shy Natalie exemplifies the awkwardness of adolescence.
Philibert beautifully captures the parallels between the turning of the world and the unfolding school year as infants settle into learning nad gauche youngsters look forward to middle school. Etre et Avoir works as a countryside companion to Bernard Tavernier's fictional It All Starts Today about urban working class French schoolchildren.
The harsh winters of the Auvergne region underscore how the rigours of the natural world and the local farming industry put pressure on the tender shoots of knowledge. These children can drive tractors and muck in among the animals and so education must earn its corner of the kitchen table.
But one can't help but be struck by the dedication of Georges Lopez and the the profession he represents. Not only must he juggle appropriate teaching so that everyone's attnetion is held but he is also kindly uncle and counsellor to the children in his sole care.
There is genuine love between Lopez and his charges. This is a captivating image of teaching as vocation where lessons don't merely run from 9-5, and where the development of the whole child is paramount.