The film Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have) should be required watching for all New Labour politicians. It might enlighten those who believe education can be reduced to a barracks regime of testing designed to fit young people for the needs of employers. Etre et Avoir follows in great detail the life of a real school in the French countryside. The school is tiny so there are children from four years old to ten in a single classroom.
The teacher, nearing retirement, has dedicated his life to helping young people to become decent human beings. Remarkably the children seem largely unaware of the camera, perhaps because the director did 60 hours of filming in all. The result is a picture of the complexity and fragility of children's lives. It shows them struggling with problems, sometimes succeeding immediately, and sometimes not.
It underlines what miracles they can achieve, and how no two children are the same. It shows how their lives outside impact on school, and how they all learn different things at different speeds. Their quirkiness and occasional weird moments are interesting and funny, not reasons to be labelled 'failures'.
The film could easily have given a chocolate-box version of rural life. Certainly it does show how beautiful the Auvergne countryside looks in the changing seasons. But at the same time it hints at how hard it can be for people who do the work on farms.
It begins with bringing in the cows during a snowstorm and goes on to show the grind of milking. One of the pupils is already a seasoned hand at driving a tractor at ten years old.
Nonetheless as I left the cinema I was nervous that some would rush out and try to get their Josephine or Bertie into a 'lovely village school'. It could be seen by some on the right as a nostalgic cry for a mythical simpler life without 'inner city problems' like drugs and poverty, and children who come from all over the world. Some in France have interpreted it along these lines.
But the film does not say that this village school is a model to follow. It says that education and children are too precious to be fitted into a straitjacket. In this sense it does not matter that the film is about the countryside rather than the city. Etre et Avoir is not as great a film as Tavernier's wonderful It All Starts Today.
That brilliantly shows the life of children at a school in a French mining town now suffering from mass unemployment and council cuts. But Etre et Avoir is still well worth watching.
Etre et Avoir
Director: Nicholas Philibert