Être et avoir.
To be and to have.
These verbs and their auxiliary forms are the metaphorical spinal column of most of the world’s languages; the branches on which every adjective and noun feeds. Here in Nicolas Philibert’s profoundly simple documentary film we observe a man planting equally strong roots in the minds of cute little French children of varying ages as only a masterful school teacher can. Georges Lopez drives the school bus, teaches, watches out at break-time, plays games, provides a shoulder to cry on. He’s a superhero to these kids, Philibert captures their awe in their eyes and what’s more, each of them, Georges admits, are just as magic to him.
Filmed in St Etienne de somewhere-or-other, call it rural France, in a one-room, 3 class school of about 15 kids ages 4-11 – an almost inconceivable schooling concoction from even a rural British perspective – Georges, the ultimate father figure, looking like Jean Reno if he’d watched a few more Apple Keynotes when Jobs had the reigns, literally does it all. The film, released in 2002, poignantly snapshots country life and how that affects education for young people. For example, Julien, a plump young farmer’s boy at age 10 or 11 is driving small tractors at home, cleaning cowsheds, doing dishes and so on, all relatively adult chores, but him and his family can barely complete his 3 times table homework; which is more urgent, teaching the boy to work or teaching him to multiply?
Georges obviously encourages the latter. Throughout the film Monsieur uses every trick in the book, every mental manipulation his 25 years teaching experience has garnered him to draw the best human being from his kids. Note, human being, not student, a distinction understood but ignored by the majority of educational systems worldwide in this technological age. Unsurprisingly excellent teaching makes for excellent documentary film with several incredibly relatable, touching scenes making huge waves in my soul throughout. In the extra interview DVD feature, Philibert states how he makes films “with” and not films “about”; this observative, distant style coupled with the gripping formative childhood moments are an ingenious match. Close-ups of confused faces who’ve forgotten which number comes after 6, joyous young faces elated after simply washing paint from their hands, the ol’ classic enraged yet tearful grimacing mug of an innocent 4 year old who’s been pushed over in a puddle and now he “can’t go skating”???. The crushing feelings of powerlessness and fear when a parent is sick. This closeness between the pupils with one another and with Mr Lopez is almost non-existent nowadays with population increases and social pressures for “success” – not to mention flagging numbers of men in primary educative roles – so watching in 2016 I felt like I was being taken back in time rather than drowning in nostalgia for the days when napping at school was encouraged.
The aforementioned magic moments may not seem like much as they really have to be seen to be believed. I think we all still hold on tightly to certain early moments in our lives and fondly remember and appreciate the efforts of people whose love for what they were doing and whose understanding of such moments at the time diffuse into the way you or I perceive life. My French teacher, I remember taught me about art. My personal tutor and chemistry teacher, about hard work. My friends, friendship. We don’t tend to have time to reflect on specific moments, even the ones we do remember which makes capturing them tastefully so fantastic thereby giving us another tool in our arsenal as we build towards being aware of ourselves and our own flaws so that we can understand the hardships of others.
An incredible film that highlights the importance of good teachers.
And that concludes today’s lesson.