Monday, August 22, 2022

276. The late French director Bertrand Tavernier’s feature film “Ça commence aujourd'hui” (It All Starts Today) (1999), based on a commendable screenplay co-written by the director, his daughter Tiffany, and Dominique Sampiero: A primary school teacher who walks the extra mile to serve and speak for the tiny tots raised by parents with marginal incomes



"For its commitment to everyday heroism, its multi-layered approach to an array of social problems, and for the visual force of the storytelling.”

--Citation of the FIPRESCI award bestowed on the film It All Starts Today at the Berlin International Film Festival

There have been several films made on uplifting student-teacher relationships. These include To Sir, With Love (1967) a film on boisterous white high school students from slums of London eventually admiring and respecting their black rookie teacher;  Dead Poet’s Society (1989) on another rookie teacher kindling creative self-expression through poetry in  a US boarding school for senior US students from wealthy  backgrounds resulting in their unwavering respect and love for him; Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), a remake of a film made 30 years before, where a stodgy Latin teacher after his marriage transforms  himself into an endearing school headmaster winning the hearts of his students;  Not One Less (1999), a neorealist Chinese film with real life characters playing their real roles directed by Yimou Zhang, focusing on a real life 13-year-old substitute teacher bringing to the fore the urban-rural education divide and the earnest desire of the teacher to teach and care for all her wards equally well;  and The Class (2008), a French film on the true experiences of a French language and literature middle-school teacher dealing with his foreign-born students disciplining them and gradually gaining their confidence--yet, not all students feel they ‘learned’ anything in his class.

It is Bertrand Tavernier’s two feature films on related subjects that discuss matters more substantive in the teacher-pupil interactivity, namely his films A Week’s Vacation (1980) and It All Starts Today (1999). In both films, the teachers are not rookies they have some credible experience in their jobs. The former discusses the importance of a female teacher observing and "listening" to her pupils in their early teens in a school in Lyons, France. The film underscores the fact that a reflective teacher could gain from the interactions with the pupils. However, Tavernier’s  It All Starts Today inverts the teaching role further to a teacher taking proactive steps to get the local government and the student’s parents to get involved in helping the teachers to impart education as they wish they could with limited resources provided by the local government.

Daniel (Philippe Torreton) truly cares for his students
and they love him for it

It All Starts Today has actor Philippe Torreton playing the role of Daniel, a head teacher of a primary school in a small mining town in France where former miners Daniel’s father survive with an oxygen cylinder strapped to his back. Miners not only battle pollution of particulate matter affecting tem while they worked in the mines, they have few other options of re-employment. Some are not clever enough to look for sustainable options for livelihood and slip into despair. Most are not sufficiently educated to move out and nor do they have any plans to start a new life and hence spend their days and nights in front of the TV sets. Their offspring are named after characters like “Starsky” and “Hutch”  from popular US TV serials. Some of the families cannot pay their utility bills and send their kids where they can get some education and mingle with others of their age. Worse still it is these cash-strapped families who are expected to support Daniel’s school through funds provided by the local civil council.

Daniel is the angry young man who is livid when the council cuts the lunch program for the kids and the parents are supposed to provide each kid with their lunches. When Daniel confronts the chief of the civic body, he is told the council has no money and Daniel, the underpaid teacher, offers a small contribution from his purse so that they make efforts to garner more funds to restart the scheme.

Daniel takes food on a personal initiative to the home of a
child whose parents are struggling to survive;
the other kids on the street are only marginally better off

Tavernier and his co-scriptwriters keep the viewer cleverly engaged to the bleak tale of the film using two tools. The first is Daniel’s demanding parallel personal life where his father is sick and his girlfriend wants him to father her next child while he pleases every student  (including his girlfriend's son from an earlier relationship with another man) with care and empathy. The second is Daniel's and his girlfriend’s out-of-the-box ideas to keep the young students happy and educated. One such innovative idea is to ask a parent, who is a truck driver, to bring his heavy duty truck to the school for the students to see what it could do—which proves to be a real treat for the kids who have never seen such a huge vehicle up-close.

Daniel, the angry multi-tasking primary school teacher,
is not just good at his job, he is loved by his students

When a financially struggling parent commits suicide with the children, the community that had preferred to look the other way comes out in full strength providing a flower-decked hearse.  Tavernier’s strength has been his choice of credible actors in minor roles such as the lady—Mrs Henry--who is driven to suicide because she does not see any hope to improve her lot.

Daniel talks to a child to figure out if he is 
being ill-treated at home, a role uncommon in a usual
teacher-student relationship

Daniel is concerned and takes proactive steps to stop a student from being brutalized at home by an abusive step-parent. The film is not merely a tale of an angry teacher forced to multi-task; it is a film about an individual being proactive to make the economically depressed society of a mining town to realize that change in their attitudes will go a long way to help their progenies to prepare for the future. The FIPRESCI award citation for the film (mentioned above) captured the strengths of the film well.


P.S.   It All Starts Today won the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin international film festival in 1999 and was nominated for the Golden Bear. It won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and an Honorable Mention from the main Competition Jury for “the specialty of the topic;” the Best Film awards at the ASECAN, Sant Jordi  and the Fotogramas de Plata film festivals, all  three in Spain; the Audience Award at the San Sebastian International Film Festival, Spain; the Best Actor award at the Lumiere Awards, France; and  the Ecumenical Film Award at the Norwegian Film Festival. The other 1999 film mentioned above Not One Less, made in China, was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on that name in this post-script to access the review)