Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

School of life

EDUCATION / Claire Simons' Cannes «Specials» presentation reminds us of the possible concretisation of the utopian ideal.
Director: Claire Simon
Distributor: Condor Distribution
Country: France

Few people have the chance to pass the school years not reduced to testing the capacity of information repetition, discipline enforcement, resistance punishment and annulations of all kinds of creative differences. Youngsters today, confronted with a dark future for the planet, with stressed-out parents fighting for their status preservation, surrounded with peers fighting for their place in the hierarchy of appreciation, already witness in these standard schools an early taste of what kind of society is waiting for them, not to mention the painful missing of any traces of true passions or moments of transcending daily life.

But there are still schools that open up—often as a unique and never-to-be-repeated chance—for perceiving other lifestyles marked by existential experiences involving literature, philosophy, art, music, and knowledge but as a passion and ongoing research, not just as a repetition task for social success.

Elementary Claire Simon
Elementary, a film by Claire Simon

Teaching aims

In Cannes’ «Specials» section, Claire Simons presented her latest work, Elementary, which honours the most precious and determining young life phase. In recent years, she has not been the only one doing this. Common conscience seems to have emerged regarding the not-to-be-missed potentials of first education. A special mention here goes to Maria Speth’s Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse (Germany, 2021), which had already observed an intuitive and creative teacher who set solitary attention to each pupil as the most important aim. The weakest and the strongest in class were put together to collaborate. Favorites by Ruth Beckerman (Austria, 2024) focused on moments of first conflicts, which can be overpassed by an always-insisting request for dialogue and mutual understanding by the teacher. Learning to stay together without denying one’s own wishes and thoughts is the profound teaching aim here.

Learning to stay together without denying one’s own wishes and thoughts is the profound teaching aim here.

Clare Simon’s (*1955, London) approach is characterised by two differences: Her camera floats over the ensemble of scholars in an elementary school without portraying or focusing on anybody. More astonishingly, she captures an atmosphere where, from the first scene, moments of tenderness between teachers and scholars are shown taking place. A hug isn’t a taboo, and it happens that the children embracing teachers are looking for emotional comfort or taking their hands in a situation of insecurity, like the shy and intimidated Mamadou, newly arrived from kindergarten. It is beautiful to see such scenes in these (toxic) times, where physical contact between adults and children is otherwise observed with the highest degree of mistrust and suspicion.

With an emphatic view, Simon documents the daily lives of children with their small moments of joy and doubts, success and disappointments in an elemental school in Ivry-sur-Seine, placed in a highly mixed cultural reality on the outskirts of Paris. Understanding religious differences quickly becomes a discussion subject between pupils, carefully moderated by teachers, who rarely take positions but help children to clear their understandings and approaches by simple questioning.

The Makarenko Public Elementary School is a place where caring for each other and togetherness are the main goals. Can there be a better base from which to start life beyond aggression, competition, fainting, inclination, and degradation?

Elementary Claire Simon
Elementary, a film by Claire Simon

Time to catch up

Anton Semyonovitch Makarenko (*1888, Belopolie, Russia) developed an educational model without violence of hierarchic authority, aiming for self-responsibility, based on teachers’ complete sincerity in front of their pupils. Trust in humans is the foundation for transforming learning into joyful experiences beyond censorship and restriction. Punishing can’t have a place here. There is always time to catch up.

Clare Simon has, in earlier works, also examined school situations, such as in Young Solitude (2018) as director of photography and in Playtime (1992). Now, in Elementary, she celebrates, in a panoramic view, a school as an opportunity to grow up as a free spirit and to develop an individual mind beyond intimidation. As in her recent work Our Body, set in a gynaecology ward, she isn’t beyond passing conflicts, but definitely, she wants to point out, without any explicit comment, what a school could be if competition and exclusion don’t have a place any more.

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Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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