Political Film Society - It All Starts Today

PFS Film Review
It All Starts Today


It All Starts TodayDuring the 1990s, French unemployment hit 10 percent. The province of Nord-Pas-de-Calais (the same province featured in the recently released Humanité) had an unemployment rate of 33 percent, but government agencies turned a deaf ear to the social consequences, according to the fact-based story in Ça commence aujourd’hui (It All Starts Today). Directed by Bertrand Tavernier, the movie focuses on the one institution where economic realities and social dislocations are perhaps most clearly evident -- France’s government-sponsored but underfunded nursery schools (école maternelle), which enroll children aged 2-6 for six hours of guided activities by dedicated professionals. Daniel Lefebvre (played by Philippe Torreton) is the principal and teacher at the school in Hernaing near Valenciennes (though students in the film are drawn from the Anzin school). Children at the school exhibit such problems as deafness, child abuse, incest, and malnutrition. In reaching out to students who fail to attend regularly, Lefebvre uncovers alcoholism, absent and negligent parents, and filthy homes with inadequate heating. Schoolteachers, thus, must devote considerable energy to feeding starving children, serving as surrogate parents who can love the children, and identifying problems for government social workers to handle. But government regulations appear to prevent nurses, physicians, social workers, and even the town’s mayor from providing assistance. Violations of government regulations that increase the suffering of the people are uncorrected because public agencies do not respond due to inadequate funds, overworked personnel, and excessive paperwork to obtain approval for anything out of the ordinary. One day Lefebvre calls Child Welfare Services to provide transportation for a child whose alcoholic parent is physically unable to take her home at the end of the day, only to have the agency hang up on his distress call; he must then violate regulations by driving the child home. With problems of his own at home, Lefebvre erupts the next time a social worker arrives on a routine visit, forcibly ejecting her from the school while telling her that the school will not admit anyone from Child Welfare Services until the agency decides to deal with the real problems of the people. His display of anger and frustration works. Thereafter, help arrives in the person of Samia (played by Nadia Kaci), a nurse who makes a health assessment of the children and summons a physician, who in turn orders urgently needed medical tests for certain children. Samia also arranges to reassign an abused child to a foster home. But one mother, during the bitter winter, decides to take her own life and that of her child when all her pleas for help to overcome an illegal action by the electric company to leave them in darkness and without heat are ignored. Although Levebvre contemplates resignation after a receiving a poor rating on teaching methods from an insensitive educational supervisor who appears to know very little about educating preschool children, the joy Levebvre experiences when the children perform in public inspires him to continue to fight the battle. The most mirthful parts of the movie indeed occur when the children respond joyously in and out of class, assuring filmviewers that extraordinary efforts to overcome bureaucratic inertia are indeed well worth the effort. For viewers outside France, the extraordinary teaching methods and results of France’s preschools are exemplary, quite a contrast with America’s daycare zoos. The French appreciation of creative arts is also stressed in the film as the antithesis of the government’s cost-benefit analysis. It All Starts Today, thus, depicts right-wing President Jacques Chirac as trying to Americanize the educational system and Thatcherize the bureaucracy in a vain effort to solve the economic crisis. As a movie demonstrating the tragic impact of austere financing and bureaucratic flimflam on the lives of desperate people and an entire generation of children, the Political Film Society has nominated It All Starts Today for an award as best film on the need for greater democracy and greater respect for human rights as well as best exposé of the year 2000. MH

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