Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Movie recommendation: Être et avoir

Être et avoir [To Be and To Have] (2002)
directed by Nicolas Philibert
French with English subtitles
104 minutes

[Jojo and M. Lopez]

Fictional films about education, at least the ones I know, tend toward corny predictability: a young, idealistic teacher; alienated, potentially lethal students (who for some reason have not yet dropped out); a moment of breakthrough (the Jack and the Beanstalk cartoon in The Blackboard Jungle, the Silas Marner trial in Up the Down Staircase); and the teacher's resolution to forsake easier and better-paying options and continue where he or she is needed.

Nicolas Philibert's documentary, focusing on a classroom in a French village, is a welcome contrast. The teacher, Georges Lopez, is near the end of his career (after thirty-five years teaching, twenty at this school). The thirteen children in this classroom (what an American would call a "one-room schoolhouse"), ranging in age from four to twelve, are endearing. And there is no breakthrough, only small moments of humor, sorrow, and effort. Which is to say: the film moves in the way that school moves, slowly. It's appropriate that one of the first scenes we see is of two turtles making their way around the floor of the empty classroom. The film's slow pace is a reminder that the work of learning is a matter of many small steps -- writing the numeral 7, understanding the difference between ami and amie, mastering the conjugations of être and avoir.

What's most striking when I watch this film is how calm this classroom is. M. Lopez never raises his voice, and he speaks to his students without false, cartoonish praise for their efforts. The students are, of course, children, and there are cheeky attitudes and small fights. But M. Lopez seems to trust that appealing to his students' dignity and capacity for reason will sooner or later lead them to do the right thing. Thus he waits patiently for Jojo (a feisty boy who gets a lot of time on camera) to add a necessary Monsieur to his oui and reminds him of a promise to finish a picture before lunch. With Julien and Olivier, two boys with a history of fighting, M. Lopez points out the pointlessness of their battles and reminds them that they will need to stick together when they go off to middle school. What we come to see in the course of the film is a group of students whose regard for one another and for their teacher is genuine. And in M. Lopez we see a teacher with the deepest love for his students. Pay close attention when the students say goodbye.

I can remember in third grade the excitement of opening a note written by my teacher and learning that her name was Roslyn (she sent me on these messaging jaunts to her colleagues until my parents asked her to cut it out). I can remember the far greater excitement of being invited to my fourth-grade teacher's wedding. Which is to say: teachers used to be mysterious figures. I never had any idea where my teachers lived or what their families were like. So it seems appropriate to me that this film lets M. Lopez remain something of a cipher. All we learn of him, in one short scene of speaking to the camera, is that he comes from a farming family, that he wanted to be a teacher from childhood, that his mother lives in France, and that his father (no longer living) came to France from Spain. When the movie was made, M. Lopez was evidently living in the large school building. Is he married? He wears no ring. Does he have children? We don't know. I wonder for some reason whether he might be a former priest or monk. It's curious that though M. Lopez is described again and again as having become a "celebrity" in the aftermath of this film's release, I can find no further background online.

Être at avoir has, alas, a bitter and bewildering coda: when the film became a surprise hit, Georges Lopez sued for a share of the profits (and lost).

Être at avoir (The film site)
Defeat for teacher who sued over film profits (The Guardian)

comments: 1

Genevieve Netz said...

It would have been a generous and kind thing for Philibert to offer some portion of the profits to the man who was the star.