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Every so often a little show will break through the noise and rudeness of normal film product, making us feel like we're still living in a civilized world. Nicholas Philibert's gentle docu To Be and To Have (Être et avoir) focuses on a teacher in a rural town in France's Auvergne region. Tall and calm, Georges Lopez takes charge of about twelve kids in a grade school where tiny first graders work alongside older brothers and sisters ready to proceed to middle school. Over the course of a hundred minutes we become privvy to an intimate process -- the way a good teacher gets little kids to socialize peacefully, focus their attention on various tasks, and begin the process of learning to read and write.
Philibert's patient camera captures one informative, revealing and touching scene after another. Wordless sequences set the scene and return at intervals to show the passage of the school year. We see the little white school van, the snowy trees through the windows and the classroom turtles crawling about after hours.
The children start with writing lessons, forming round O's and readable numbers. It's a tough task, learning to begin the 'O' at the top. Some kids catch on, and then there's Jojo, who seems so full of smiles and energy that Lopez must remind him that concentration is important. Within a couple of minutes we're invested in the progress of these kids, from the adorable little Asian girl to the older Olivier, a red-cheeked sweetheart of a kid.
Teacher Lopez is calmer than Mr. Rogers and doesn't smile that often. He gives his students his full attention, and compels them to return it. The kids are attentive, reasonably obedient and behaved. When disputes break out Lopez forces those involved to face up to what has happened. One boy named Julian has fought with the more sensitive kid, Olivier. Lopez lets them know that they have a responsibility to provide a good example for the smaller kids.
I can see American elementary teachers breaking down in tears while watching this film. We travel home with Julian and discover that his is a family of farmers. He can't be 11 years old, and he's operating a skip-loader. His parents aren't much help with his math problems. These kids don't have posh backgrounds, but when Lopez gets them they're already civilized. None are disorderly hooligans by age 5.
Yet there are problems. In a parent-teacher conference Lopez tries to advise the mother of a girl who stays remote, talking little. She seems in a world of her own. Later on, Olivier is once again distraught when Lopez calmly gets him to talk about his father's recurring sicknesses. The boy is obviously crushed, and needs support; Lopez takes a personal interest. In this system, on this small of a scale, he can make a difference. In another interview segment Lopez explains that he was born the son of a Spanish immigrant farmer. He always wanted to teach and his parents supported his higher education. Now he's on the brink of retirement (although he barely looks to be 50). He's enjoyed every year and says that the children have always paid back his commitment.
In some scenes the kids are aware of the camera, but other moments are miraculously candid. Little Jojo needs special attention just to get him to wash his hands -- he's more interested in the wasp he just saw. One shot shows an entire sequence beginning with a squabble at the school gate. Jojo is pushed down, cries and goes off by himself; his classmates take him to Lopez. It's all in one shot. Lopez makes his judgmental role as minimal as possible. The shot ends with Jojo walking back out to play, with soft snow falling. It's simply a perfect two minutes of film.
There is a second teacher but we only see her briefly in a couple of scenes outside the classroom. The teachers take the kids out for some sledding, and we find ourselves eager to see our 'favorites' at play. They learn to make breakfast, breaking eggs. Lopez also takes them to visit the middle school, a building with an impressive library. He's often seen encouraging the older kids to keep at their studies... we intuit that some of them will surely stop, to go back to working on the farm.
When Spring comes we know school is winding down. Some new tots visit. They look too small to be first graders. One keeps crying for "Maman" even after the 'tough kid' Julian gently steps in to take charge. One of the older students appears to be slightly mentally handicapped. Lopez advises her about her future but can't get her to talk to him. We can't tell if she's crying because the camera intimidates her, or because she'll miss her teacher. This does bring up a privacy issue... is the film fair to the little girl?
To Be and To Have does not have a hand-held, cinema vérité appearance. Most shots are locked down or taken from a stable camera position, as if the classroom were pre-rigged to be filmed from one side. Mr. Lopez is of course aware of the camera, so it's important not to take the film as evidence that he's the best teacher who ever lived. The final shot is beautiful, with the kids saying farewell and Lopez clearly moved, yet we must remind ourselves that it is to some degree planned and staged. Yet we're convinced that we're seeing real behaviors, not director Philibert's manipulations. There's more than enough honesty and beauty here to make us try to recall what our own first school experiences were like. We think of our own kids as well.
To Be and To Have pulls us back down to the human level to show us that primary educators do a basic, essential job that makes society work. It's more than a show about some cute French kids. Is America capable of learning anything from other countries? We treat our teachers as if they were lazy slackers stealing the public's money. By denigrating the profession of teaching we're committing cultural suicide.
Kino Lorber's DVD of To Be and To Have is a handsome, colorful and relaxing show. Filmed in Super-16, the images are rich and detailed. The audio is remarkably good, leading us to suspect that the classroom was carefully pre-rigged to improve filming conditions. The English subtitles don't miss anything, even when one student's mother names off her cows as they pass by -- they're dairy cows, so they all have delicate ladies' names.
Viewers already aware of this marvelous picture will like to hear what director Philibert has to say in his interview. He starts with the statement that all movies don't have to be extravagant spectacles. We also get an original trailer. A 'poetry reading' extra offers additional enchantment. Several kids including our (we have to admit it) favorites perform some frankly adorable recitations. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
To Be and To Have DVD
1. I checked the Wiki page for this film, only to find that it seems to have been hijacked by a controversy. After the film was a success the teacher and some of the students apparently felt that they had been exploited for profit. Whether the issue has or hasn't merit, after seeing this illuminating film any discord seems regrettable.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.