ETRE ET AVOIR
(Dir. Nicolas Philibert 2002)

This film manages to pull off an unusual double: it is both boring and hellish. It is very slow, and very little happens, and most that does happen happens several times. It is about dull people in a dull world, doing nothing of merit or novelty.

So much for the boring aspect of it, now on to the hellish:- The job of a psychotherapist is to convince people that they need his help in the first place, and then to convince them if they come to him that they are being helped by him, even if he is (as statistics consistently reveal) not helping at all. Similarly, the job of the teacher in this documentary is to convince the viewer that he is a nice, patient, caring man. This way, he gets to come across well, and the film-makers have a hero.

The teacher we see in this film and the film-makers behind the camera are presumably sadistic uncaring bastards. Several times in this film we see a scene in which the teacher has isolated one pupil from the rest, and sets him up in front of the unforgiving and ever-judging camera, and slowly pushes him and pushes him until eventually he cracks and bursts into tears. For those who enjoy child psychological torture porn, this is a feast. For others, imbued with some modicum of empathy and perception, this is hellish. I wanted to step into the picture and rescue those poor children from his vile clutches. All the time, he is selling himself to the viewer and the child as kind and gentle, and all the time he is anything but. The film makers do not intervene. Instead, the camera is rock steady on its tripod, out-staring the children, and intimidating them. All the director has to do is wait, and he will get his golden moments of child tears.

The children in this film are not bright, or at least, not the ones the editor has chosen to show us. Several times we see a child picked on and humiliated for the camera. One child counts to six, and then fails to say the next number, and the teacher asks him what they have been working on all morning. The boy is told the answer a few times, but still cannot repeat it. I think if I were four years old and had a film crew, a teacher, and the rest of my class all looking at me like that, I might too be intimidated into silence. At another point, a boy is pushed over and bursts into tears. He is four. When the film came out he would have been about five, when the DVD came out he would have been about six. He was sentenced to a childhood of being the one who was pushed over and burst into tears. A newspaper report says that since the film came out, nine of the eleven children featured have sued the film makers for compensation for trauma.

There is another scene in which one boy is at home trying to do his maths homework and is having trouble. More and more members of his family step in to try to help, and the way the scene is cut strongly suggests that none of them can solve the one problem that the little boy has been set. I strongly suspect that the editor has made them look dimmer than they really were. We urban film-going intellectuals are treated to an opportunity to laugh at the stupid rustics. Okay, the boy is bit dim, and his family is a bit dim - I get it - but there is no need to rub anyone's face in it.

The teacher is forever fishing for compliments, both from the pupils and the viewers. To watch this smug man go utterly unchallenged was near unbearable. No one questions his methods or his authority. The parents all seem to defer to him, and to the children he is all-knowing. The school actually has two teachers, but the second one is almost entirely ignored. We are invited to feel sorry that the man is retiring. I am disappointed that he wasn't sacked thirty years ago. That he has no children of his own and is apparently single is not investigated. There may be very good or very bad reasons for this.

I say that the people who write in other reviews that the perpetually black-clad teacher is saintly, the school idyllic, and the film charming, have been successfully conned. That was clearly the intent of the film makers, and that they have succeeded with so many people is praise-worthy in terms of film-making technique, but utterly condemning in terms of morality.

If you hated school, as very many (most, I suspect) adults did, then this film is a disturbing reminder of the sheer hellishness of it all. It is reasonable to suspect that the people who chose to see a film about school days are a sample biased towards those who liked school and were blind to its dark side.

I can recall one shot that I enjoyed: a small boy, looking quite content and able, driving a massive tractor on his family's farm.



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