Claire Simon profiles daily life in a French elementary school in this charming documentary


Source: Cannes Film Festival


Dir: Claire Simon. France. 2024. 105mins

This is not the first fly-on-the-wall documentary to capture the daily dynamics and playground politics of a school, nor is it likely to be the last. But the latest film from Claire Simon, set in a lively, culturally mixed elementary school in Ivry-sur-Seine, on the outskirts of Paris, Elementary is a small gem of a picture. Simon’s unobtrusive, empathetic lens captures the challenges and the small triumphs of daily life in a city school. By choosing not to foreground any one particular character – one of the main elements that sets it apart from other education docs, such as Mr Bachmann And His ClassEtre Et Avoir and this year’s Berlin title Favoriten – the film celebrates the collective effort that goes into learning, to engaging and frequently rather moving effect.

Simon takes a mosaic approach, with each little scene contributing to the vivid bigger picture

Simon’s follow up to Our Body, her acclaimed documentary set on gynaecology ward, Elementary is a return to subject matter that she has partially explored before, most notably in her mid-length film Playtime, which looked at the dynamics of the school recreation period, and Young Solitude, which focused on a Paris high school. But Simon is a filmmaker able to bring a freshness and curiosity to each project, even if the subject matter is not particularly novel. And while Elementary may not make any groundbreaking new statements, it’s a film of considerable charm and some gentle humour which should find a warm reception on the festival circuit and possibly a home on a streaming platform or with a documentary specialist distributor.

The school is the Makarenko Public Elementary School, the teaching methods employed are empathetic, progressive and caring. The film opens with the start of the school day. The head teacher greets the pupils by name at the school gate and accepts a “little hug” from several of them. A new boy appears, graduating from kindergarten to the daunting challenge of big school. Mamadou is tiny and wide-eyed, he clutches the head teacher’s hand as if it’s the only thing that’s preventing him from being swept away by the eddying currents of kids as they flow through the playground.

Rather than pursue a linear story Simon takes a mosaic approach, with each little scene contributing to the vivid bigger picture that is the educational environment. A little kid in a teddy bear t-shirt punches the air when he gets a question correct – and winces like a football fan reacting to a missed goal when he doesn’t. A neurodiverse boy burns off tension with supervised solo scooter circuits whenever the pressure of the classroom gets too much. Mamadou is scolded by one of the girls for spoiling a game. A caterpillar provokes a minor playground panic. On a school trip on a boat on the Seine the children scream their excitement every time they pass under the bridge, the teacher smiles despite herself. We see another teacher identifying what might turn out to be an indicator of special needs in a child who is gently, subtly supported in their struggle with spelling.

Makarenko is not out of the ordinary, in the sense that these small dramas, triumphs and tensions play out in countless schools around the world. But the film makes a counter case: although Makarenko itself is not remarkable, the series of little miracles that goes into the education and shaping of young minds can be a perennial source of wonder.

Production company: Les Films Hatari

International sales: Films Boutique

Producer: Michel Klein

Cinematography: Claire Simon

Editing: Luc Forveille