It’s great to have an excuse to re-watch a fondly remembered film. Repeated viewings can deepen our appreciation as favourite moments are relived, high points relished, previously overlooked nuances, connections or details revealed. But there’s a danger, too, that it might turn out to be not as great as our memory of it, and that perhaps the moment and not the material made it stand out in the first place.
Re-watching Nicolas Philibert’s Être et avoir (To Be and to Have) after almost ten years, I was afraid to risk my own warm recollections of this one-room schoolhouse in rural France – its adorable little attention-deficit-disordered Jojo, the quietly murmuring Alizé only briefly fazed by the swiping of one her erasers, and, most of all, the patient, soft-spoken Georges Lopez, the teacher who oversees and instructs his charges without ever raising his voice (well, just once, but for reasons best apprehended by watching the film).
Philibert had set out to make a documentary about France’s changing agricultural economy and the rash of family farm bankruptcies that threatened a very French way of life. From 1992’s Le pays des sourds (In the Land of the Deaf), about the world of the deaf, to last year’s Nénette, about an inscrutable 40-year-old orangutan at a Paris zoo, his films have always been concerned in some way with how we communicate. At the time of Être et avoir, he became interested specifically in how we learn to read. According to Philibert, the project then evolved into “what it is to learn, to acquire knowledge and social skills, which are the building blocks of civilization” (1).
After four months combing through information about 300 schools and visiting 110, Philibert chose Lopez’s school in Sainte-Étienne sur Usson, a rural hamlet in the south-central province of Auvergne. The one-room schoolhouse had a small number of students spanning a wide age range and sufficient natural light streaming through the building’s tall windows, which made it possible to shoot without lighting equipment and its cumbersome setups.
On the first day of the shoot, Philibert let the students examine the boom, the camera, and other equipment, making everyone comfortable around these strange new things. Then, for ten weeks between January and June 2001, he and a small crew shot, without a script, a maximum of 40 minutes each day so as not to overly disrupt the kids’ education. Philibert, who edits his own films, took the resulting 60 hours of Super-16 footage and crafted his story. “A film’s final cut is not a ‘best of’, but a construction”, he later wrote, “which complies as much with the director’s desires as with laws peculiar to film” (2).
His seventh feature-length documentary and first to bring the director international renown, Être et avoir premiered in May 2002 at the Cannes Film Festival, about nine months after the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., eight months after the US responded with the precipitous bombing of Afghanistan, and less than a year before more misdirected fury was unleashed on the Iraqis. That the world has never been a calm place is a ridiculous understatement, but that life on Earth rotated toward the reckless after 9/11 is undisputed. When I saw the documentary in early 2003, it provided a brief respite of calm for me in those first menacing years of the Bush administration, in the way that I imagine that schoolroom as a respite for Lopez and his students.
Yet Être et avoir is laced with subtle reminders of lurking dangers. Philibert even begins it on an agitated note. Outside the classroom, cows clang and moan as they are herded across a road while urgent voices worry over oncoming traffic and bad weather. Suddenly, through the perspective of a van’s windshield, we are being sped headlong through the twists and turns of a narrow country road to the gate of the schoolhouse. Cut to the classroom, which is empty of souls except for the pet tortoises slowly clacking their way around the floor. All the loud noise and fast movement are left outside the door. The film has only just begun and we’re relieved to be inside.
Philibert is not opposed to framing out other unpleasantness in the way tourists try to omit cars from their photographs of trips abroad. “[T]he school has computers, but the film of children using them was incredibly boring”, Philibert said in a 2003 Sight and Sound interview. “So I preferred to focus on the moments that illuminated the relationship between M. Lopez and the children. Then in Julien’s house the television was always on, but to film we had to turn it off.” (3)
Yet he never neglects the outside world, interspersing carefully composed tableaux of sometimes threatening, sometimes serene surrounding landscapes. We get glimpses of the locals’ hardscrabble life and the rougher attentions the students receive at home: Olivier bursting into tears over his father’s illness or Julien getting whacked on the head by his impatient mother over his math homework.
“When a film anticipates all questions”, Philibert said in a 2005 interview, “it prevents us from thinking” (4). So, the director not only leaves his own questions unanswered but also plenty of ours as well. Will Nathalie adapt to middle school? Who but Lopez (and Philibert) will respect her shyness yet simultaneously help her to overcome it? Who will patiently clean Jojo’s paint-stained hands when Georges retires the following year? And what of Georges? What will become of him without his schoolchildren and schoolyard garden to tend?
Almost ten years has passed since the film made its splash, when M. Lopez and his school kids appeared at Cannes and 300 theatrical prints circulated around France to an estimated audience of two million spectators. The splash was such that at the height of the film’s fame, the curious stopped off in Sainte-Étienne sur Usson to snap pictures of its students as if they were movie stars and Lopez filed a lawsuit in hopes of some financial compensation.
Now, little Jojo is no longer little and must have made his own transition to middle school. The older kids – Julien, Nathalie, Olivier – are young adults, quite possibly having children of their own. Family farms in France are still threatened and the whole structure of the global economy is creaking. Wars rage. The world outside that one-room schoolhouse, outside the movie theatre is no calmer. Perhaps that is Philibert’s point. Dangers always lurk. Être et avoir is still comforting not because the schoolhouse seals off these dangers, but, because inside, we are given the time to learn how to deal with them.
- Philibert interviewed in Richard Falcon, “Back to Basics”, Sight and Sound vol. 13, no. 7, July 2003, p. 28.
- Nicolas Philibert, “A Camera Gives You Incredible Power Over Others”: http://nicolasphilibert.fr.
- Philibert in Falcon, p. 29.
- “A Conversation with Nicolas Philibert”, compiled by Bertrand Bacqué and Barbara Levendangeur for the 2005 catalogue of Visions du réel International Festival in Nyon, Switzerland: http://nicolasphilibert.fr.
Être et avoir/To Be and to Have (2002 France 104 mins)
Prod Co: Canal+/ Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique/CNC/Gimages 4/Les Films d’Ici/Maïa Films/Arte Prod: Gilles Sandoz Dir, Ed: Nicolas Philibert Phot: Laurent Didier, Katell Djian, Hugues Gemignani, Nicolas Philibert Mus: Philippe Hersant