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:: Etre et Avoir (To Be And To Have)

To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir) was shot in a small “single class school” in provincial Auvergne, France. These types of schools exist all over France, often keeping small, isolated villages alive. Many teachers arrive at these schools sometimes reluctantly but after a while, many of them no longer wish to return to the traditional education system. Such is the case with Georges Lopez, the small school’s teacher, and key figure of this more-subtle-than-a-documentary film experience.

Lopez is the soon to be retired teacher responsible for the primary school education of twelve students aged between three and eleven. Lopez teaches all subjects and classes and his daily ritual involves teaching the younger students to read, then moving on to the table where the grade 5 students sit and getting them started on long division. In between teaching the structured syllabus, Lopez deals with the various disagreements and arguments that inevitably befall children in the schoolyard, all school excursions and pastoral care issues.

Etre et Avoir isn’t a traditional documentary film. Director Nicolas Philibert has employed a more ‘fly on the wall’ technique to film the children and their teacher. Initially, the students are all very conscious of the camera and occasionally glance directly into the lense. As the film progresses, the children seem to forget that they are being filmed at work and play, allowing us to become privy to something more priceless and entertaining; the looks of concentration and confusion that accompany the learning process.

This is a teacher that seemingly has all the time in the world for his students and is very aware of the unique circumstances that shape each of them. He comforts one of his grade 5 students whose father is very ill with cancer and through his gentle but no-nonsense line of questioning, encourages the student to verbalise his concerns eventually bringing a smile to the distressed boy’s face. On a lighter note, there are moments of genuine hilarity such as the sight of two four-year olds standing on chairs trying to use the photocopier. One of these students is the lovable but hapless Jojo, who seems to have an ongoing battle cleaning his paint-splattered hands and face and who would certainly share top billing with Mr. Lopez if this were a feature film.

The complete dedication this remarkable teacher has for his students is heartbreakingly exemplified in a scene where he bids them farewell for the summer holidays, and says a final goodbye to a couple of students who are going to a larger school further away from the village. The students clearly adore this man and each one kisses him goodbye wishing him a happy holiday. Lopez fights to hold back tears as he watches his students make their way from the school ground.

Finally, the many accolades this film has received include a nomination for a Cesar Award (a first for a non-feature film) and the winner of the Best Non Fiction Film awarded by the US National Society of Film Critics. To Be and To Have is a charming and unique film experience

Screening at Cinema Como.