Filmmakers and classrooms

Though films are now made practically everywhere in the world, historically there are three countries that have continuously produced and continue to produce an almost complete palette of these works: the United States, Japan and France.

But, oddly perhaps, only in French cinema does there seem to be a constant and particular interest in schooling and education. Classic fiction films such as Zero for Conduct (1933), The 400 Blows (1959) and Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) cannot be detached from their scholastic setting.

This is not a characteristic only of the past: the biggest French hit of 2013 was the mainstream comedy Les Profs, which looks at a group of inept teachers at a French lycée, while several other of the most profitable films over the last ten or so years, including such films as Ducoboo, Le Petit Nicolas, The Chorus (Les Choristes) and the two recent War of the Buttons remakes showcase not only school-age children but children actively involved in learning and being prepared for a bright future or, especially in comedies, being punished for not doing as they’re told.

Something similar happens in the arthouse sphere as well, with two seriousminded critical darlings The Class (2008) and Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013), set at least partially at schools (both also won the Cannes Film Festival’s highest honour, the Palme d’Or in their respective years of release). The former holds a mirror up to contemporary, multicultural France within a single class that a teacher (played by François Begaudeau, on whose semi-autobiographical book the film is based) tries to keep together over one school year. Indeed, the film hardly leaves the classroom, as suggested by the original French title, Entre les murs.

At first sight, what viewers might remember from Blue is the rocky, intense and very physical relationship between the two female leads, but education actually plays a large role in the story, with the younger protagonist, Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) still at a lycée and her somewhat older object of desire, Emma (Léa Seydoux) a student about to graduate from art school.

Several years later, Adèle has lived through an intense love story and has arguably learnt as much from life as from school, but her choice of a teaching job suggests how important education and the idea of transmission of experience and ideas are for this story, with Adèle transformed over the course of the film’s 3-hour running time from a young, naïve and inexperienced girl to someone who can pass her knowledge onto others.

The documentary front has also seen several noteworthy titles that looked at education, including what may be one of the most successful French documentaries of all time: To Be and to Have (Etre et avoir) from non-fiction filmmaker Nicolas Philibert, which premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, out of competition. This work looks at a class in a tiny rural village of just 200 inhabitants, a circumstance that forced the local primary school to have just one unified class with children ranging from 4 to 12.

As in The Class, which, though fiction, has a strong documentary element because it was based on the protagonist Begaudeau’s own experiences and costarred only non-professional children, To Be and To Have manages to see in the young pupils something of the opportunities and difficulties of the present and near-future of an entire country.

The two films, released six years apart, complement each other in various ways, most notably because To Be and To Have underlines some of the major problems facing schools, teachers and pupils in rural communities while The Class does something similar, but for the metropolitan environment, having been filmed in Paris’s particularly multi-ethnic 20th arrondissement.

Documentaries about the force of education and the countless difficulties associated with it did not end with Philibert’s masterpiece, still considered by many the prolific filmmaker’s finest work.

Indeed, in the last 12 months, two major French documentaries looked at education: Julie Bertucelli’s The School of Babel, which looks at a ‘reception class’ in which foreign children who speak little or no French adjust to a new language and new methods of schooling, and Pascal Plisson’s On the Way to School (Sur le Chemin de l’ecole), the latter a remarkable box-office success with over 1.3 million admissions, a very solid result for any fiction film, let alone a documentary.

On the Way to School looks at four children in four different countries: Kenya, Morocco, Argentina and India. Each of the four protagonists has to overcome improbable odds to even reach a school, such as crossing the Patagonian planes on horseback; walking for hours in the mountains or across the savannah or being pushed in a wheelchair across unsteady terrain.

If less attention is paid to the classroom itself, that is not because the film doesn’t speak about the power or importance of education; quite the contrary, as the efforts these children make on a daily basis to simply get to school speak volumes about their desire to learn and to improve their prospects in life.

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