As kids gloomily return to school this month, the time seems right to take a DVDetour into the blackboard jungle. We give a lot of lip service to the importance of teaching in this country, yet you still find plenty of people who gripe about the teacher’s supposedly easy lot (three months off a year, though only a select few don’t work seasonal jobs in or out of education during that time) or the escalating amount of tax dollars devoted to schools (never mind that the budget for the Department of Defense is seven times greater than the Department of Education).
Which is not to say there aren't serious systemic problems in public education and plenty of teachers doing just enough to get by in their profession. But that's true of any field. The fact is that our culture (and certainly our movies) is far less likely to present a portrait of a heroic teacher than a heroic cop, criminal, entertainer, soldier, athlete or millionaire. Certainly there have been inspiring depictions of teachers on the silver screen, but most often they concern someone facing down the danger of classrooms in gang territory ("Dangerous Minds," "Lean on Me") or they are romantic visions of beloved teachers in the decidedly upscale world of private schools ("Goodbye Mr. Chips," "Dead Poets Society"). The most common obstacles in education must seem too real, too everyday for those in charge of the dream factory.
I know next to nothing about public education in France, but if Bertrand Tavernier's "It All Starts Today" (1999) is an honest portrait, it seems to face many of the same problems it does in the U.S., particularly in impoverished communities. The hero of the film is Daniel, a kindergarten teacher and administrator in a mining town plagued by staggering unemployment and general hopelessness. He knows he is reaching the children of the community at a pivotal point – the best moment to get them on track with vital learning skills and a positive attitude to see a brighter future.
Standing in the way of Daniel's mission is…well, everything (aside from a few loyal colleagues). He seems to be constantly pushing a boulder up a mountain to ensure his students get the bare minimum of what they need. Just getting some of the kids to class is a burden as he deals with parents lost in a haze of alcoholism and depression. The child welfare agency becomes more of an adversary than the ally it should be and government and school system representatives offer little more than bureaucratic stalling or the insult of reprimanding Daniel for his commendable efforts. They would prefer he just go along with the current system instead of acknowledging its failings.
Tavernier films this story of one man's pained devotion to his calling with documentary realism but also with intense dramatic drive. That drive is aided tremendously by the remarkable lead performance of Philippe Torreton. He makes Daniel's frustration so palpable that we keep waiting for him to explode. He does go off in small bursts, but his mission keeps him from ever totally losing control. His is the contained rage of a man of such goodness that he can't allow himself the indulgence of self-destruction. Too many people are counting on him. But Torreton's deeply felt performance and Tavernier's avoidance of sentimentality keep Daniel from seeming like the saint-like figure he would be in a lesser film.
"It All Starts Today" offers no panacea for the social ills and institutional failings it depicts, but in Daniel it does give us a glimmer of hope. It shows us the truth behind the cliche that it is the everyday heroes who keep the world from falling apart.
The Accent Cinema/Facets Video DVD of "It All Starts Today" features good image quality and clear English subtitles and includes a feature-length commentary by Tavernier, a photo gallery, filmographies and a theatrical trailer.
Films featured in DVDetours™ may be difficult to find at many video stores but are widely available from some of the online rental services, such as Netflix, Green Cine, QwikFliks and Blockbuster Online. Inventories vary from company to company and DVDetours has no connection to any of these services.
© 2005 Joel Wicklund