by Allan Fish
(France 2002 104m) DVD1/2
p Gilles Sandoz d Nicolas Philibert ph Nicolas Philibert, Katell Djian, Laurent Didier, Hugues Gemignani ed Nicolas Philibert m Philippe Hersant
Writing as I do at the very end of 2009, at the end of the naughties as it were, a fellow film buff was eulogising over how the decade had, more than any other, been that of the documentary. It was hard to argue in terms of the saturation of documentaries on our screens in the last decade or so. It had all began probably with the success of the founder works of Errol Morris and Michael Moore in the 70s and 80s, but it was the critical and relative popular acclaim of the likes of Crumb, Hoop Dreams, Buena Vista Social Club and, especially, When we Were Kings, that made it hip to like documentaries again. Actually, strike that ‘again’ from the last sentence, because never before had they been so popular. On that score my friend was right.
Why is it then that I find myself so underwhelmed? This last decade has seen many excellent documentaries, some touching, some funny, some informing, some filled with a righteous fury. There was the spelling bee kids of Spellbound, the ballet of death of Man on Wire, odes to Terpsichore like Ballets Russes and La Danse, polemics like Bowling for Columbine, odes to eccentrics like Grizzly Man, political pieces like An Inconvenient Truth and No End in Sight and personal visions like I for India, Dear Zachary and My Architect. There’s a place for all, and yet forgive me, one and all, when I say that I could just as easily have done without them. For their success highlights a pandemic problem at the heart of modern mainstream cinema, a lack of creativity that means that if it can’t be remade, repackaged, regurgitated, sequelled (or prequelled), then they don’t want to know. The success of these films doesn’t parallel the success of reality TV for nothing, for both are very cheap to produce. Unquestionably the documentaries listed above are worthier, but how many people will watch them fifty years from now? There’s none of the poetry of Humphrey Jennings, Peter Watkins or, dare I say it, Leni Riefenstahl, and as for detail, so many TV documentaries dwarf them in scope. I watch them all. They are, by and large, very fine. Yet though the subjects they inform us of are memorable, the films themselves slowly drift away from the consciousness. Films little different to extended episodes of Panorama, The World in Action, Arena or 60 Minutes.
So we come to this entry, my peace offering to the documentary munching maniacs who despise all films with an actual cast. It’s another small film, as small as any listed above, about a fiftyish school teacher, Georges Lopez, whose life is devoted to just one thing; living in and being sole teacher of a remote, one classroom primary school in Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson in the Auvergne valleys of central France (it might just as well be the Yorkshire Dales for location or language matters little here). It’s the depiction of a way of life and the valuation of a life well spent. Georges Lopez is a man worthy of the attention, who has spent decades at his work. Yet he’s coming close to retirement, and his charges – ranging between 4 and 11 years, each with different levels of ability – will soon have to get used to another teacher or, in the case of the eldest ones, a new school and a whole lot more schoolmates. That isolated landscape ties it in well with several other documentaries of the era – think of Grizzly Man, think of Into Great Silence. There are the usual idyllic childhood pastimes – sledging features quite prominently – amongst classroom activities that are both academic and practical (one thinks of a scene of tossing pancakes which says as much as any scene in the film). And the kids themselves tick all boxes, demographic or otherwise, so that we can recognise aspects of Axel, Alizé, Marie, Julien and, especially, Jojo in our own experiences. Yet if I’m honest, the reason it’s included here may be that it inspires memories of films of yore more than any documentary of its era, from Feuillade and Feyder’s visions of childhood of the silent era to the thirties gems of Hiroshi Shimizu. Indeed, there’s a shot from on board a bus at the beginning of the film to make all Shimizu lovers smile.