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Être et avoir / To Be and To Have (2002)

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The one-room schoolhouse is widely seen as a thing of the past, a relic that predates the wonders of a modern system of education. Yet thousands of these schools exist in rural France. Director Nicolas Philibert takes us into one, situated in a remote Auvergne farming community in his documentary film Être et avoir.

Starring in this documentary is teacher Georges Lopez whose patient yet firm hand guides his students—about a dozen in number, ranging from the age of four to eleven—through some of their most formative years.

If Lopez is the star, he is supported by a cast of young people who did an admirable job of being themselves. The youngest of the children struggles to concentrate on a task at hand and then discovers that when it's time to play he hasn't followed through on his end of the agreement made with the teacher. Then comes the lesson: if he had stayed on-task, he would be finished and now able to play, but as it is, he needs to keep at his work while the other children play because failing to finish isn't an option.

The older children, in or near their last year in primary school, find themselves struggling to find their places. When the boys fight, Lopez finds himself in the role of mediator, showing not only the nonsense of the physicality, but helping them to see how it came about and how it could have been avoided. Finally he helps them to see that their behavior will guide that of the younger children and he asks them to consider what sort of example they're setting. A girl seems desperately in search of her voice and a means of expression and she seems unable to conquer the numbers that make for the lesson in mathematics. We see Lopez talking to her mother and hear him state his own objective in working with her as he does: he just wants her to be happy.

Working for the children's happiness sounds perhaps cliché but as the film progresses, we find no difficulty believing it. We see him volunteer his time to continue to work with his student struggling with math and to communicate even after she goes off to middle school. We observe a conversation with one of the older boys whose father is ill, recovering at home from one surgery so that he may return to the hospital for another. The boy is clearly and understandably upset, but the school's quiet master patiently listens and helps him to keep his perspective: even pain is a part of life.

Observation of the man and his methods that have helped children not just to learn their numbers and grammar but to become whoever they can become is genuinely a joy. Thus the film takes on a bittersweet flavor as we learn that Lopez is close to retirement—and in fact must be retired by now. One only hopes that the next generation of teachers will live up to the example set before them. We're also given cause for reflection, how it is that we interact with children and what sort of influence we have over them.

I was saddened to discover during the course of writing this that Lopez has since sued director Philibert, claiming partial authorship of the work. Losing his original suit, he appealed, and lost again. One additional appeal is possible and as far as I can tell, no announcement has been made. That Lopez would make such a claim—no doubt in search of a portion of the proceeds of the film which has turned out to be a surprise commercial success—is deeply disappointing. Being a documentary, the film simply reports what the camera sees, and we presume that Lopez agreed to be part of a documentary. That he would later claim that he was due some additional compensation that was never part of the deal reminds me of his interaction with young JoJo, who failed to live up to his part of the deal to be able to go out and play with the rest of the children. Were someone failing to live up to an agreement there would be some cause for dispute but this civil action looks like it could be greed, wanting to negotiate a different deal after seeing how the project turned out. Perhaps I'm just too much of an enterprising American to identify with Lopez on this front: one would think that a far better course of action would have been for him to use the tremendous amount of free publicity to publish a book on methods for education, to lecture on the development of children, or to do anything that could be a lucrative second career launched by the global exposure offered by the film's success. The episode is perhaps valuable for reminding us that even our greatest teachers are still ultimately human, complete with their own weaknesses. Perhaps the final lesson is that even disappointment is a part of life.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-07-31 09:05 AM
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