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...
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