Thursday, June 19, 2008

Etre et avoir: love and hate

Nicolas Philippe's 2002 documentary about a secluded French one-room school opens with a suite of deliberate metaphors: cows being herded in a wintry tempest, the warm cocoon of an empty classroom (turtles tortuously moving across the floor), and finally snow-covered pines swaying in the wind. There is a singular lyricism to it, like the rest of the movie, that patiently follows Maître Lopez and his charges through the school year. Bit by magical bit, Lopez exercises patience and diligence, dexterously overcoming the challenges of teaching 13 children aged 3 to 10 all in the same room practically at the same time. All action takes place surrounded by the picturesque countryside of the Sainte-Etienne region of southern France, as if, again a deliberate touch by the filmmaker, in a fairytale. It is a charming meditation on education, on finding oneself, on the the first steps of the difficult socializing path that we all tread, toddler, adolescent or adult, and the wizardly power of those who usher us through each stage.

And here is precisely where this "feel-good movie in the noblest sense" (Screen International) goes awry for me. Let's look at the opening sequence again. The first image is herding cows; in an interview contained on the DVD Philippe avows this to be a (somewhat clumsy) metaphor for education - brainless beasts being cajoled and pushed across the field into a (socially accepted) place to be. The second take is the warm cocoon of the schoolroom, empty but for the absurd little turtles; patience will be necessary and maybe a sense of humor for this movie; fair enough. But what particularly interesting is a single image that stands out in the order of the classroom: a globe, out of place, lying on the floor, upside-down. And finally, the magical touch of the swaying trees, a rather ambiguous sign, at once expository (this is the countryside and not the city) as well as evocative (life moves differently out here). Therefore, we can read this series of vignettes as: dumb beasts (children) being herded (to school) which is artificially unlike home (abounding with exotic creatures) where the world is turned upside-down, a fairy tale in the original Grimm sense: through a dark wood into the terror of the Id.

From the first images, read in this way, I initially anticipated this movie to be a sideways but virulent critique of the French school system (which, with its overcrowding and antiquated methods, has much to criticize). Yet, no, this movie is a loving and, yes, lovable ode to Maître Lopez and his countryside unified classroom, his 30 year-old methods and the simple way in which his students plan to live their lives. (As teachers and veterinarians, they say, but more likely as farmers, like their parents and their parents before them.) Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about M. Lopez. As a professor, I see a lot of myself there: the various ways of teaching, the touchy interpersonal conflicts that arise and require meditation, the wisdom to know when to put your foot down and when to let things slide. The nobility of the teaching profession and the magical, yes, magical frisson that occurs when your students suddenly (or not so suddenly) succeed. The joy of teaching and the bittersweet goodbyes at the end of the school year.

And yet, there is a hidden conservative agenda to this documentary that grates despite everything that it has going for it: charm, lyricism, nobility... a saccharine patina over a portrait that more to do with the ideals of the French State than the actual state of affairs in most of France in 2002. Mind you, 2002 - only three years before the 2005 riots that ripped through the Paris suburbs and various other major cities. Riots that were perpetuated by immigrants and second-generation immigrants very much unlike Lopez (whose father came to France from Andalusian Spain), people whom the French school system and social network had failed. Young people trapped in rampant unemployment, in overcrowded, run-down, underpaid, understaffed and under-funded schools. It may be most instructive to watch Etre et avoir alongside L'Esquive (Kechiche, 2003) or even Hate (Kassovitz, 1995). Though these may be purely fictional films, they have more to say about the real state of affairs for much of the French population is recent times, certainly more than Etre et avoir.

For escapist documentary, Etre et avoir receives full marks; for creating a role model of Lopez, vignt sur vignt; for a degree of artistry that I love to see in films of any kind, especially documentaries, bravo. But for creating such a frothy, magical and abstract portrait of a national education system in crisis; for embracing and praising a manner of education and population that is so homogeneous, so conservative and therefore so much what is ripping France apart from the inside today, this movie deserves a ripping counterpoint.

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