One of the hardest things about raising kids in a city like Paris is instilling in them how darn lucky they are. Of course this is nothing new. Children are a naturally ungrateful lot, but when passing the Eiffel Tower lit up like a sparkler or visiting 2,000 year-old mummy in the Louvre becomes old hat, it seems particularly irksome.
So when the film "Sur le chemin de l'école" ("On the way to school") opened, I figured it would be a good chance to give the kids a glimpse of life in other parts of the world where things we take for granted (running water, transportation, schooling) do not come that easy. It was also a way for me to start watching more documentaries, which I tend to overlook when searching the movie listings.
"On the way to school" cross-cuts between four different children in four different parts of the world: Jackson, 11, lives in Kenya and must travel with his little sister two hours every morning and risk being trampled by elephants to reach his school; Carlito, 11, accompanies his little sister on horseback across the plains of Patagonia in the hopes of learning techniques that will help family's ranch survive; Samuel, 13, a handicapped boy in India, must be pushed by his brothers in a makeshift wheelchair through sand and water to reach their destination; Finally, there is Zahira, 12, who must travel 4 hours every Monday through the Atlas mountains in Morocco to one of the few boarding schools in the region to accept girls.
The director, Pascal Plisson, has a very narrow scope here and the title says it all. He doesn't take much time to develop the childrens' home lives nor do we see them very much at the actual schools. Instead, he shows us the obstacles each of these children must go through in order to have access to education. Nonetheless, the personalities of each child comes through in the hour and 15 minutes running time: Jackson's seriousness, Samuel's sense of humor, Zahira's determination, Carlito's tenderness.
The film is labelled a documentary, but it comes across much more as a fiction film based on the childrens' experiences. The cinematography is just a little too beautiful and the journeys are just a little too dramatic to be completely organic (Samuel's wheelchair gets a flat tire, several men refuse to help Zahira on her travels).
The film's careful construction does feel manipulative at times (which didn't keep me from sobbing at the end), but at the same time, it kept my children engaged throughout, so I cannot entirely fault its scripted feel. (As a side note, whether it was the film's intention or not, it looks like it's much better to be an oppressed minority in India than in Morocco).
Did seeing this movie suddenly make my kids grateful to have excellent, affordable education available withing a few miles? No. But it did show them -- and me-- that it's possible to enjoy a movie without a talking plane or princess in it, so I guess that's something.
And the next time they complain about having to visit another world-class museum or sit through another critically-acclaimed performance, I can always tell them: "At least there are no stampeding elephants on your way to school."