The massive commercial success of ‘true crime’ documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx combined with our ‘millennial’ vigour for social change makes it easy to think of Documentary solely within this context. Of course Documentary is an important tool to address injustice, but it is more than that. Documentary does not always have to attempt to change the world or teach us didactically about an issue. Documentary can simply capture life. By its very nature it deals with reality, but Documentary resists objectivity. Like its fictional counterpart it asks us to explore a filmmaker’s subjective vision of reality. Etre et Avoir (To Be and To Have)’s filmmaker Nicolas Philibert expresses his frustration on the reductive way Documentary is often viewed in his statement that ‘its too bad because […] very often people consider that Documentary can’t have a metaphoric dimension or a symbolic way of telling about the world.’ He goes on to say ‘you can make, I think, a great film with a tiny subject, it’s more of a question of a way of looking at reality, much more than the subject which is important to me.’
Etre et Avoir is a film that perfectly encompasses this sentiment. In Etre et Avoir we are invited to join Mr Lopez’ class in the rural province of Auvergne. It is a ‘single class’ school, meaning children ranging from the ages of 4 to 11 are all taught in the same classroom. Over the course of a year the film follows the children’s development as they learn to read and count but also form relationships and construct a view of the world and of themselves. A study of a single teacher and his class may appear a decidedly small topic for a film, but Etre et Avoir reaches far beyond the classroom. It is a warm, funny and thought provoking portrait of childhood. It inspires us to interrogate what is universally human, allowing the film to morph into an epic of sorts, only one that is played out on a small and familiar stage.
Etre et Avoir is an intimate and insightful window into childhood. Philibert captures how these children are shaped by their experiences and relationships in the classroom. The film sensitively explores the relationship between student and teacher through George Lopez, a simultaneously authoritarian and gentle figure. His teaching methods are traditional and disciplined but are delivered with a softness of voice and a genuine interest in all of his students. The close relationships Lopez builds with his students fosters the film’s real insight into the children’s minds as he encourages them to thoughtfully understand their own behaviour. When two of the older children Julien and Olivier are caught fighting, Lopez calmly and collaboratively questions the boys to discover ‘what it means.’ The scene seems to beautifully capture boyhood. The boy’s desire to ‘show one another how strong you are’ speaks to a newfound physical and aggressive energy, whilst Oliver’s clear distress represents its clash with a masculinity not yet trained to conceal emotion. The emotional honesty of this moment among numerous others makes for truly compelling viewing.
That Philibert was once a student in philosophy is a fact that feels very present in this film. Etre et Avoir has a quietly thoughtful quality. This aspect is partly facilitated by Lopez’s adoption of a loosely Socratic method to teach even the youngest children. He often asks the children questions that feel very abstract; ‘What are nightmares? What do teachers do? What do you learn at school? What is work?’ School becomes a space where the children are prepared for the wider realities of the adult world. Lopez does not shrink away from confronting life’s big questions with his class. When a student very touchingly confines in him about his father’s serious illness Lopez provides comfort but also tells him ‘sickness is a part of life.’ Philibert also seems to flirt with notions of utopia in this film. We glimpse in this school an idealised vision of what education could be like, a classroom in the heart of beautiful farmland where the older children nurture the younger. Philibert harnesses this feeling through scenes that often feel dream like. We watch tortoises slowly moving across the classroom floor, see Lopez calling a child’s name in a tall field of wheat, and we hear underneath many of the scenes the hushed whispers of the younger children.
So much of what is powerful about Etre et Avoir is that it makes you think without telling you what to think. It is in that same spirit I end this post, and instead encourage you find out what it is that you think.
Etre et Avoir is also an interesting one to think about in relation to Documentary as a genre because of the unsuccessful legal action of George Lopez. Following the film’s huge critical and commercial success, Lopez attempted to sue Philibert for a portion of the profit. This case speaks to the principle in Documentary that contributors to a film should not be paid.
Where can you find it?
If you can speak French the full film is on YouTube.
If you need the subtitles you can find it on Amazon for a few $$.