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Etre Et Avoir - a Documentary

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Etre et Avoir.

Etre et Avoir tells the story of six months in the life of a small primary school in the Auvergne, a predominantly rural part of France. It is a documentary film, primarily operating through a fly-on-the-wall mode, that is to say without any discernable interference from the film maker. The camera appears quite simply to sit alongside the children and observe them as they go about their daily business in the classroom. What I want to do in the lecture today is discuss the ways in which the film both conforms to this idea of simply offering a window on the world, and the ways in which it is clearly constructed, using the same kind of ordering of material we would find in a fiction film. I will be concentrating firstly on the ways in which the mise-en-scene and editing is ordered by the director: secondly, on the ways in which the film thirdly, on the scene where the primary school teacher does talk directly to camera, breaking with the fly-on-the wall-mode, and lastly, about the ways in which the film's title plays with and adds to these layers of meaning within the film text. The most important message to take away with you at the end of the lecture is the concept that a documentary, as much as fiction film, re-orders the world it finds. All films operate a selection of material, the documentary no less than the fiction film. No film is simply a window on the world, a motif indeed played with in Etre et Avoir through its insistent use of the classroom window to symbolise the divide between the warmth, intimacy and knowledge of the classroom against the harsh, cold, rural world outside. The window itself then operates as symbol rather than clear screen, a motif that we could take to underline the function of cinema generally. The screen is not a clear view into another world, but the way in which we see bits and pieces of carefully composed footage that is put together through narrative and editorial codes.

Nicholas Phillibert, the director, explains on the DVD commentary that his film-making is not about spectacular events and ribald adventures, but a belief that greatest undertsanding came come from the observation of simple, everyday things. Thus we can see even in this opening comment describing the project of the film that this is far from being an accidental film in its emphasis. When we discuss the construction of a mise-en-scene in documentary film making, we are obviously not referring to a studio set, or a deliberate choice of colours. However, the mise-en-scene of the film is still absolutely decided by directorial choice, which will inevitably affect our global view of the film. In the case of Etre et Avoir, Phillipert decided that he wanted the film to take place within a mountainous region, for the inevitable contrast that would be furnished between the huge mountains, symbol of permanence and durability, and the life of a small classroom. He knew exactly the number of students he wanted in a class - between 10 and 12, and that the class must encompass all ages, from age 4 to 11. These choices were made for both practical and thematic purposes. He wanted there to be enough children in the classroom that they wouldn't be overwhelmed by the presence of the crew, but he didn't want so many children that the viewers would not be able to identify and remember them. In other words, he wanted the children to be able to perceived as characters within the film, a decision that underlines the film's interest in watching children grow and learn. In other words, the film was not overtly trying to make a political point about the education system in France - lack of funding or similar - but rather projects a re-assuring image of a classroom where everyone can become a characters, thanks to the inspirational teacher, a political decision in itself that then affects both the editing and the mise-en-scene of the film. Further practical considerations included the amount of light in the room. As the crew was filming using natural light, to be as undisruptive to the classroom as possible, the classroom had to have a lot of natural light. Once again, this practical choice affects our overall view of the finished film: this is a modern classroom, with large windows that open out onto the world. The messages of the classroom that the film sends to us - the classroom as a luminous space, the classroom as a space that both interacts with and protects from the wider world, are determined by practical, technical considerations that ultimately effect our entire reading of the meaning of the film.

Philibert visited more than 25 schools in the Auvergne region, spending over five months scouting for locations, before settling on the small school in the film. He says that he fell under the charm of the teacher and the particular atmosphere he created in that classroom. Philibert's own sympathy for and identification with the teacher is echoed in the way that the film breaks out of its fly on the wall mode in order to have an interview with him: he is the character who the director wants us to get closest too, who is seen as the central articulating point of the film as well as the classroom. Perhaps it is not so surprising that M Lopez is suing for a percentage of the profits: I shall discuss his important symbolic and structuring role in the film in more detail later. Further considerations did however influence the director's choice of class. He was also attracted to the mix of gender, race and age in the class. It was, he claims, a heterogeneous classroom, and furthermore, it allowed him to communicate his belief that solidarity can be born out of difference. He claims that often, the power of difference is ignored - here, his film subtly underlines the ways in which difference can be accepted and celebrated, but also how difference forces us to learn to live together. The overall aim of the film, the director argues, is to communicate about how living in society forces each and every one of us to make compromises, to make moves towards understanding the other. The film's choice of scenes which stress conflict and the resolution of that conflict, usually through the intervention of the teacher, thus have a deeper meaning than merely illustrating 'life in the classroom'. The reason why, upon editing, such scenes are given time and space in the film, is because they re-enforce the political and symbolic points the film wishes to make.

Editing is also key to the way the film communicates to its audience. The crew were in the classroom for six months, and clearly would collect much more material than would be needed in a 90 minute film. As the director says, 'we're not there to simply film everything any old how' - this material will be carefully selected and ordered. The first few days in the classroom consisted of the



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