In a recent blog post I mentioned films about teachers and specifically Être et Avoir. For today’s blog entry, I am posting a review of that film.
Être et Avoir
(France, 2002; English subtitles)
Directed by Nicolas Philibert
This documentary follows a teacher and the children he teaches in a single classroom from the depths of winter until the end of a school year. Set in a farming community, we see the changing seasons through the work on the farm. Coming near retirement, the teacher is wise if not dynamic. What we see of his teaching is authoritative – several dictations for the older children; the younger children work on making their letters and on learning to read and form sentences with new words.
His wisdom is evident in the exchanges he has with children – with the girl who is “distant” and finds communication difficult, and the boy whose father is suffering from a serious illness. Extraordinary access to school and homes was granted to the filmmaker. So we get to observe parents helping children with homework, a difficult parent-teacher meeting, a school picnic, and a school visit from young students who will be joining the school the following year. We get a glimpse of the responsibilities some children have outside school, such as an older primary school boy driving a tractor one minute and cooking pasta for his sister another.
There are humorous moments – many of them involving young Jojo – such as when he and a girl stand on a chair trying to use the photocopier, and young JoJo washing marker off his hands. Jojo is also the boy who can count in really high numbers, without understanding them. Birthday cakes, talk of illness, school tours remind us that despite the apparent tortoise-like pace of the film, the cycle of life is continuing alongside the cycle of the school year.
The children’s relationships go through phases familiar to anyone who has or who works with children. As expected, older children in the room help younger children at times, but not too much is made of that in the film. At times children are friends, at other times they’re rivals and problems have to be resolved. In one incident where a boy pushes Jojo to the ground at the school gate, the guilty party fails to use an excuse he could have used. As the older boy saw it, Jojo was stopping the others from closing the school gate to keep out a local dog who was in the playground – a reminder that just because a child can’t express the reason for an action doesn’t mean that none exists.
This is a documentary about ordinary people going about life and education. I was conscious of the camera throughout the film – at times it was difficult to watch (when the teacher spoke one-to-one with the girl who was distant, for instance) but this film offers as genuine a portrayal of school life as can be expected from any film. We see plenty of language and maths being taught and not so much of other subjects, but what we do get is a rounded picture of part of a year in a rural primary school. We’re reminded frequently of life outside the school – mostly farming – and it’s no surprise that most of the younger children aspire to becoming vets or teachers (giving orders) when they leave school – the exception being a boy who wants to be a motorcycle cop.
The teacher describes how his own parents made sacrifices so that he could become a teacher and as he reflects on his 35 years teaching – 20 in this setting – he seems pleased with the influence he has had on this tight-knit community, where so much of his work is visible to all.
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Authentic, wide-ranging, positive, Teacher as father, occasionally makes for uncomfortable viewing.