To Be and To Have
I caught up with Nicolas Philibert's 2002 French documentary "Etre et Avoir" just the other day; it came with a string of awards from both sides of the Atlantic, including the National Society of Film Critics' selection as best documentary released (in the U.S.) in 2003. It's the story of seven months in the life of a one-room school in the Auvergne, that rough, back-country portion of the Massif Central that's been France's equivalent of Appalachia.
The teacher is 55-year-old Georges Lopez, a year and a half away from retirement. He's been teaching for 35 years and has been here in the village for the last twenty. There are a dozen children in his classroom, ages 4 to 10, and he lives (alone, we suppose) upstairs from his school. The film begins with an early-winter snowstorm and ends as summer vacation begins and the oldest children go off to the region's middle school.
The film is utterly compelling, not least for its glimpse into the way in which French education differs from our own; there are drills, dictation and struggles with penmanship. Lopez, who never once during the year raises his voice, tells us how, as the son of a Spanish immigrant farmhand, he knew he was to become a teacher: "Even as a child, I was always teaching my friends," he says. But the focus of the film is on the children. And, perhaps unexpectedly for us in the audience, there are no stars here; we see no child who will go on to greatness. They are lovely and lovable but they all struggle with their lessons. Nathalie, one of the older ones, is pathologically withdrawn; she can barely get out a single syllable. Lopez and her mother meet briefly to discuss her, and it is almost unbearably sad to watch them and think about her life ahead. The camera visits two homes; in one we see 10-year-old Julien expertly driving a backhoe. In the other we see another student struggling with arithmetic, surrounded by his family, all of whom are barely able to comprehend the problem.
There are also moments of joy; the whole school troops out for tobogganing down a snowy hill; they picnic while on a train trip (and little Alizé gets lost in a nearby field of rye). And Lopez is fascinating. His little school has everything he needs; it's not impoverished and he doesn't have to make do. He is both strict and patient; we can see his frustration but we also feel his love for the children. He takes the whole group to visit the middle school and give them a taste of what life will be like after this.
Philibert, who shot in 35mm with a small crew, has managed, like Frederic Wiseman, to be a fly on the wall. The children pay no attention to the camera; nor does Lopez. Life in the school is rigorous but loving. The tensions of childhood are there but they are not overwhelming, largely because of the soft, loving presence of the teacher. I would love to meet M. Lopez; I wonder where he is now.