This week’s screening on Film and Education was Être et Avoir, the 2002 award winning ‘fly on the wall’ documentary directed by French film maker Nicolas Philibert.
Filmed across the course of a school year Être et Avoir tells a story (whose story it tells is a matter for discussion) of a single class, all-age primary school in the village of Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dôme in the Auvergne region of France. We witness the quiet dedication, concern and authority of Georges Lopez, the school’s teacher of twenty years as he approaches retirement. We watch the children learning to write, sledging, flipping pancakes, supporting each other, pushing one another over, as well as falling out and making up. At times the intrusion into this intimate space becomes uncomfortable when the camera focuses our attention on the emotional distress experienced by some of the children. The observation style briefly deviates when Lopez, tending the school’s garden (it is also his home), turns to the camera, and in an interview style tells the story of him becoming a teacher.
Être et Avoir is a distinctly French film, not only because it is French, but because, as Powrie (2005) discusses it reflects recent French cinema’s concern with the preadolescent child as potential victims of dysfunctional families and failing state institutions. Also, it would be difficult to take the nurturing, intimate, often tactile, yet clearly asexual relationship between the male Lopez and the children in his care and place it into an English primary school. This taps into another idea discussed by Powrie; that of the theme of retrospection and heterospection as seen in the spaces we view the children inhabiting. For example, the film presents a rural idyll, resonating with freedom, supporting a nostalgic and romantic vision of childhood (Aitken, 2007). The outside shots show the cycle of seasons, suggesting, simultaneously, continuity and discontinuity. The same seasonal cycle is reflected in the life of the school, the transition of the older children is a disruption, yet a new intake introduced towards the end of the film highlights continuity. However, we are also shown contrasting spaces where children inhabit more of an adult world. For example, we see Julien reversing a tractor on the family farm, and later cooking for his siblings. He is, as Lopez says ‘strong as an ox’, but this does not stop him assuming responsibility of caring for young members of his family. The freedom associated with the open space is inverted, briefly, when we see the search for Alizée, seemingly lost in a field. We are reminded that open spaces are mysterious, disorientating, and that freedom is potentially risky.
Student responses to the screening included, amongst other comments, that it was ‘boring’, and that ‘nothing happens’ but this is an effect which this example of cinematic ethnography has tried to achieve. However, far from accurately representing the mundane reality of this small village school, être et avoir is a construction of reality, with ten weeks worth of filming condensed and packaged into a one-hundred minute DVD. Lopez and the children may be ‘stars’ of the film, but the film may not represent their stories.
Aitken, S. C. (2007) ‘Poetic child realism: Scottish film and the construction of childhood’, Scottish Geographical Journal, Vol. 123:, No.1, pp. 68-86
Powrie , P (2005) ‘Unfamiliar places: heterospection and recent French films on children’, Screen, Vol. 46, No.3, pp. 342-352