This sweet and subtle documentary is sure to entertain - and perhaps deeply touch - anybody who cares about children. Which should be all of you.
Don't be put off by its French name; Ètre et avoir simply means To Be and to Have. Not having known that before now, I like it. It's a sweet little sentiment that matches the film perfectly.
If you ever have the opportunity to watch this documentary, absolutely give it ago - especially if you have kids, want kids, or care about children and education in the slightest. Probably the best way to go into it is completely oblivious, as I did, but it may suit you to know what it's about first. I'm about to tell you.
The film follows a tiny school in which a single teacher cares for and educates a group of about 15 kids, all different ages. The little ones are about kindergartener aged - AND THEY'RE SO CUTE! The camera follows as they take on the challenges of growing and learning in this cozy environment; learning to count and write, trying to convince the teacher that they're hands aren't covered in mud, trying to operate a photocopier... they're an adorable bunch and every moment they have on screen is entertaining just for the cute factor, but especially when they attempt something just a little beyond their grasp.
The older kids, called 'big ones', deal with some bigger life issues. Apart from learning sums they're parents can't even understand, two boys learn to co-operate without fighting or slinging insults - after all, they have to set the example for the little ones to follow. One girl struggles to communicate with anyone (and never actually has a conversation while the camera is around), and the whole group strives for the results they need to move up to middle-school.
In the middle of this - the glue that holds this community together - is the teacher. A kinder soul you couldn't dream of; he is gentle and patient with the young ones, accepting of their flaws and ever attentive to their needs, while still challenging them to think and pushing them to work harder. He asks questions of the little ones like "How far can we count? Past a billion?"and "Why do you work?" He fields their tangential impulse and turns them into food for thought for their developing minds. His commitment to these kids, his care and his passion is a joy to behold, alongside all the cuteness and kiddie-drama.
The way the camera behaves is interesting - it is perhaps the closest thing I've seen to a 'fly on the wall' (though it's clear in some scenes that people are conscious of it). There's no strong narrative structure, there's no voiceover and almost nothing shown of the filmmakers. It's shot in such a way that really drags you into the classroom and into these kids' struggle, feeling completely natural and unobtrusive. This lends the film its simplicity, as well as a sense of heartfelt honesty that makes it unique and joyful to watch.
I'll admit though, I did get bored at times. I think perhaps some of the establishing shots lingered just a little to long and I started to lose interest, but as soon as the people were back on screen I forgot about it. On the whole, a worthwhile experience.
(And I'm going to give away the final shot now, so stop reading if you think you might like to experience this film for yourself!)
I just have to mention the final shot (or second to last or so) because it's just so powerful, in all its honesty and subtlety. The teacher says goodbye to his kids for the last time that year. He ushers them out the door to where their bus is waiting. The big ones are going to middle school next year - this could be the last time he sees them. And although the little ones are staying on, he himself only has another year left with them before retirement. It's a touching moment once they've all left the room and the teacher is left all by himself... And we see the emotion start to get to him - just start. He recomposes himself inwardly, while the camera still lingers.