How do we learn to live with others and their wishes? Director Nicolas Philibert poses this question in a village schoolhouse in Auvergne, where Georges Lopez teaches 13 children, ages ranging from about four to 12. Against a landscape of mountains and farmland, from driving snow to rain to sun, the children gather in Lopez's warm and colorful classroom, to read, write dictation, cook, and sort things out. At home, the older ones do homework with parents after their chores. At year's end, they look ahead to the next, visiting the middle school and meeting the little ones coming in the fall. As they learn sums and adjectives, with Lopez's help, they also learn to live side by side. Written by
Être et avoir, To Be and To Have, is, like Something's Gotta Give, a title I don't get. But unlike the latter, a poorly written romantic comedy and star vehicle deserving to be soon forgotten, the French documentary leaves a deep impression. It's an incredibly touching and absorbing portrait of a teacher named Georges Lopez in rural Issoire, in the center of France, who works alone in what is called a `one-room' school. His students, the blurb says, are 4 to 11. You don't really know their ages, and since they're all together you see them as individuals rather than representatives of particular age or class levels.
The focus of To Be and To Have is, with minutest detail, upon what happens in the classroom. It stops just short of a complete portrait of the man, assuming he has some `être,' some being, outside the classroom. At a moment where he speaks of himself to the camera, he reveals that he wanted to teach and loved the classroom even as a young child. Does he really have a life outside class? Has he married? It seems not. Is he gay? Asexual? Wonderful as he is as a teacher and surely his patient firmness makes him superb with children in a peculiarly French way -- the insistence on manners and civility, on his being called `monsieur' (a bit old fashioned, one might think, even pre-1968, pre-Seventies) and that apparent absence of a life outside the classroom, all suggest a certain human limitation in Georges Lopez. Or you can see him as a monk, teaching as his sacred calling, and the classroom as his chapel. This limitation comes through in his insistence on guidance, rather than listening, a gap that shows in two extended private sessions with students in need of counseling -- one with two boys who got in a fight, the other with a girl who is withdrawn amid her peers where in each case the kids barely speak up at all. The teacher's manner seems to overwhelm them, even though it's gentle and caring.
But the documentary isn't just about the teacher or his firm, dominant, infinitely patient style, fascinating though those in themselves are. It's about the children too, of course, and they emerge with radiant clarity and life. Probably the one we'll best remember is JoJo (Johan, not to be confused with Johann of the beautiful eyes, sphinxlike calm, and occasional moments of cruelty). JoJo is so fascinating because he eludes classification; and yet in a way he's a childhood everyman. He's eager and gawky. Lopez is always focusing on him, but without great effect: he eludes molding too. He seems unfocused, unable to finish coloring, or photocopying a book illustration properly; or to wash his hands to remove the mess of ink he's gotten on them, or to finish the teacher's interrogation about how high numbers go.
But while JoJo seems frail and a bit confused at times, quick to become distracted, dissolving into tears when knocked down by Johann (the teacher handles these conflicts with magnificent calm evenhandedness), during the second, later numbers drill (which comes up spontaneously on a class outing) JoJo is making a quantum leap. Where earlier in the year he could barely write the number `seven,' suddenly he is talking about thousands and billions. You realize he's just a boy full of possibilities. And there's no telling where he'll go. Those are right who've called this film a meditation on the mysteries of childhood. It's a meditation all right. Its slow microscopic observation makes it that. It makes you ponder a lot of things: childhood, teaching, retirement; the nature of the documentary process. You realize there are no rules about how minute or how comprehensive a documentary must be; that the best ones and this is one of the best are certainly both.
Throughout Être et avoir there are moments that are tremendously moving, which pop up instantly without warning. Since the editing doesn't follow any logic other than the passage of time as the school year progresses from the onset of winter to the approach of summer, you may wonder how it's all going to pull together. There are even some segments showing parents helping their children with homework that are rather dull till the poor rural parents' academic cluelessness becomes hilarious, -- and then you realize it's a bit sad. There are beautiful brief sequences of the snow, of cows, of one of the boys cooking and driving a tractor. But what is the film talking about? we may wonder. Where is it going?
Then we learn that the teacher is going to retire shortly. And since we know now that teaching is his life in a far greater sense than usual, the day this school year ends, when the students all come up and kiss the teacher goodbye on both cheeks (three kisses in a few special cases) becomes a hugely significant day. After the children leave you half expect the maître to burst into tears like JoJo when Johann knocked him down. He doesn't, but we weep a bit for him, for the children, and for our own lost childhoods. Philibert, the filmmaker, has done a magnificent job, just by being there but not getting in the way. He has shown us a world. Merci M. Philibert! Merci M. Lopez! Merci JoJo!
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