On the Way to School (Sur le chemin de l’ecole): Film Review

On the Way to School Still H
A globe-trotting kids' documentary that’s as sincere as it is sentimental.

Pascal Plisson's documentary follows four kids heading to school in four corners of the globe.

PARIS – “We often forget how lucky we are to go to school,” reads an opening title card in French documentarian Pascal Plisson’s On the Way to School (Sur le chemin de l’ecole). For better or for worse, this slickly assembled, undeniably touching exposé spends the next 75 minutes hammering home its main idea with all the subtlety of an elephant stampede -- which is, in fact, one of many obstacles its quartet of tykes must overcome as they trek to class across a variety of landscapes on four separate continents.

Beautifully shot and edited in the best National Geographic tradition, but also sorely lacking in information and so oversweet it could cause hyperglycemia, the Walt Disney France release has garnered strong local reviews and raked in promising numbers for its first frame, scoring more than 100,000 admissions on just 170 screens. Overseas pubcasters and specialty distributors should take note, as this cloying yet heartfelt affair could be marketed to parents and students alike, serving as a lesson for those kids (you know who you are!) who try to avoid school at all costs.

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Tracking four groups of children in four far-flung locations -- the Kenyan wilderness, the hills of Patagonia, the Atlas Mountains and the Bay of Bengal -- the film jumps among the four tweens as they each set off on impossibly long, arduous and sometimes life-threatening journeys to attend class in distant schoolhouses.

For 11-year-old Jackson and his younger sis, Salome, this entails waking up at 5:30 a.m. and walking more than 15 kilometers through unprotected wilderness in Kenya, where they risk being attacked by elephants. For Carlito, it means riding a horse across rocky hillsides, his sister in tow. For Zahira and her friends in Morocco, it includes tramping over mountains, hitchhiking and hocking a live chicken in exchange for snacks. And for the handicapped Samuel in India, the voyage requires his younger brothers to push a creaky, makeshift wheelchair over broken roads and swamplands.

There’s no doubt that each one of these kids is remarkable, not only in their sheer physical tenacity, but in their sincere hope that an education will lead to a better life. It’s a far cry from the experience of many Westerners, where school is often less a pleasure than a chore, and where daydreaming and texting are the only means to ward off hours -- and quite possibly, years -- of boredom.

Yet despite its earnest message, Plisson’s documentary remains mostly on the surface of its subject matter. Beyond a few closing title cards, we never learn much about each particular child or region -- whether schooling is something recent to the area, whether better means of transportation could be made available, whether the kids can be as bored in class as we are -- and the filmmakers are content merely to make each journey feel like a mini-movie, complete with moments of suspense and humor, all of it set to a nonstop highly Disney-esque score from Laurent Ferlet.

Granted, documentaries have been scripting and staging events since Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and even before that, but it’s particularly grating to see Plisson and cinematographer Simon Watel spending so much time setting up so many undoubtedly pretty shots, whereas what’s truly interesting here are the children themselves. Even if the film does manage to reveal the splendor of each voyage, it tends to lose its characters in the landscape. As many miles are traveled here, sometimes less is more.


Opens: Sept 25 (in France); in Locarno Film Festival (Summer Academy)

Production companies: Winds, Ymagis, Herodiade

Cast: Jackson Saikong, Samuel J. Esther, Zahira Badi, Carlito Janez

Director: Pascal Plisson

Screenwriters: Pascal Plisson, Marie-Claire Javoy

Producer: Barthelemy Fougea

Executive producer: Stephanie Schorter Champenier

Director of photography: Simon Watel

Music: Laurent Ferlet

Editors: Sarah Anderson, Sylvie Lager

Sales Agent: Wild Bunch

No rating, 77 minutes