Marking its 10th anniversary with a special Blu-ray rerelease, French director Nicolas Philibert’s award-winning Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have, 2002) has lost almost none of its original warmth and charm over the proceeding decade. Embroiled in a significant amount of controversy post-release, as main subject and teacher George Lopez attempted to sue Philibert for misleading both himself and the families of the children depicted as to the film’s commercial potential, this beautifully constructed, seasonally sensitive depiction of life in a small, single class French school is still good money for its international acclaim.
Philibert’s inquisitive camera recounts a year in the life of Lopez and his sweet-natured pupils, set against the undulating fields and hills of the rural French countryside. Beginning in the depths of winter, a minor snow storm caking the environs in a picturesque white blanket, Lopez diligently attends to the task of preparing his eldest for ‘big school’, whilst simultaneously nurturing the developing minds of the mischievous Jojo and his young classmates. Yet Lopez himself is coming towards the end of his time at the school, faced with his own impending retirement.
From the outset, it’s clear that Philibert is very much part of the ‘neutral onlooker’ school of documentary filmmaking. He is neither seen nor heard throughout the entire film, preferring instead to focus his gaze upon the caring teacher, pupils and parents that make up this tightly-knit agricultural community. That’s not to say, however, that veracity is the be all and end all for Philibert – with restless, yet endearing little scamp Jojo clearly cast as the impish poster boy of single class, continental schooling.
Être et Avoir really comes into its own during scenes of one-on-one tutelage between the kindly, bearded Lopez and various recurring individuals. His acute skill at diffusing potentially disruptive situations is perfectly illustrated in his gentle interrogation of two warring boys, with the teacher delicately unravelling both accounts of the incident, not only unveiling the truth but also suggesting that the two classmates discuss their disagreement face-to-face. Only later do we learn that one of the parties is going through a difficult stage in his young life, his father undergoing an operation to remove a tumour from his larynx.
Almost inevitably, the resulting fallout of the Lopez lawsuit does take the slightest of sheens off Philibert’s hugely engaging doc. A chink in the seemingly heroic teacher’s armour has forever been exposed, yet his commitment to both the teaching profession and his beloved pupils arguably – and thankfully – seems to have remained resolute. With Être et Avoir, Philibert announced himself as one of his country’s most thoughtful and instinctual filmmakers, finding the profoundly existential in the most unlikely of places.
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