A group of French three and four-year-old children gather around a lit candle to tackle the big issues of life: Love, death, liberty and other philosophical questions that flummox many an adult.
“Next time, we’ll be asking ‘What are parents for?’” teacher Pascaline Dogliani says as she wraps her latest philosophy class for toddlers.
More than two years of these sessions at a school just outside Paris have been distilled into a French documentary, Ce n’est qu’un dibut (“Just a Beginning”), which is intriguing audiences around the world.
Filmmakers Jean-Pierre Pozzi and Pierre Barougier recorded 180 hours of footage from classes introducing philosophy to young children and condensed them into a sometimes amusing, sometimes intense one hour, 35 minutes.
The teacher first lights a candle that serves both to signal the start of the session and as a focal point for the attention of the children gathered around.
And then the group launches into weighty topics, starting with simple questions that led to more complicated ones.
The children’s answers range from the cute to the acute.
In a discussion about intelligence, one child says his mother is intelligent “because she never puts the Nutella in the fridge.”
Another is asked if adults are more intelligent than children.
“Err, no, because they say, ‘You don’t know anything, you don’t know anything, you don’t know anything,’ even though we do know things!” the child says.
Pozzi was initially concerned that his cameras and mikes would disrupt the sessions.
“But very quickly, the children ignored our presence,” he says.
The children express strong views on some issues, but struggle to answer others.
Freedom for one of them is “when you can be a little bit on your own, breathe a bit and be a kid.”
For another, it was simply leaving a prison.
One question that stumped them all is whether there are rights that adults have that children do not.
It was only after filming was finished that an underlying theme emerged, Pozzi says.
“The big issue, in nursery school? It’s love: You don’t hide it, you exchange kisses, it’s very direct,” he says.
What is love? What is the difference between friendship and love? How do you love when you are in love? The thread became apparent only when the filmmakers went back over their footage.
“It was there that we discovered the ‘listening’ shots: The intensity of the reflection, the attention, the confusion of the children,” Pozzi says.
Even for the teacher, that came as the biggest surprise, he says.
The sessions brought drama too, with the passion of emotions written across the children’s faces.
One boy announces that he is no longer in love with his girlfriend, that he is tired of her “looking at him all the time.”
His former beloved looks on aghast.
The film follows the classroom experiment into a second year of school, with the same teacher leading the sessions. By this time, the film shows, the children are more confident, to the point where they almost conduct debates themselves without Dogliani’s guidance.
“The most striking thing is that you get to the point where you forget that these are nursery school kids, that they are only four or five years old,” Pozzi says.
The film has already reached audiences beyond France, winning a prize in Germany and positive receptions in Rome, New York and Montreal. Its distributor has sold it on to Taiwan, Australia and Japan, while still negotiating with countries in Europe and the Americas. It is too early to say if the production will enjoy the success of Nicolas Philibert’s award-winning 2002 film Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have), a portrait of a teacher and his pupils at a French village school.