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“Very often people consider that documentary can’t have a metaphoric dimension or a symbolic way of telling about the world. 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”.

In this brief statement filmmaker Nicolas Philibert captures the restrictive lens through which documentary is often viewed – characterised as a space of objectivity and didacticism. For Philibert, subject is secondary. His sensitive style, which privileges subjectivity and crafts unfamiliar worlds from the everyday speak profoundly to the human condition. Etre et Avoir, Philibert’s 2002 portrait of a single class school in the rural province of Auvergne, is the striking manifestation of this creative philosophy.

Etre et Avoir invites its viewers to join Mr Lopez’ class in rural France where children ranging from the ages of 4 to 11 are all taught in the same classroom. Over the course of a year Philibert follows the children’s development as they learn to read, count, form relationships and construct a view of the world and themselves. Despite its seemingly small subject Etre et Avoir reaches far beyond the classroom, emerging as a warm and thought-provoking portrait of childhood.

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George Lopez, the children’s simultaneously authoritarian and gentle teacher acts as a compelling centre to Philibert’s exploration of childhood. His traditional teaching methods which are guided by discipline and delivered with a softness of voice, see Lopez build meaningful relationships with his students. The strength of these student-teacher relationships are fruitful for Philibert, yielding insight into the emotional lives of the class and fostering the film’s sense of interiority as Lopez encourages the children to understand the causes of their behaviour in the classroom.

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 boys desire to ‘show one another how strong you are’ speaks to a newfound aggressive energy, whilst Oliver’s clear distress reveals a masculinity not yet trained to conceal emotion. The emotional honesty of this moment among numerous others makes for truly compelling viewing.

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That Philibert was once a student in philosophy feels ever present in the quietly thoughtful quality of Etre et Avoir. This aspect is partly facilitated by Lopez’ 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 and Lopez does not shrink away from confronting life’s big questions.

Etre et Avoir even flirts with notions of utopia as we glimpse an idealised vision of what education could be like -a classroom in the heart of beautiful farmland where the older children nurture the younger. This sense is harnessed by the dream like quality of many of the scenes, as we watch tortoises slowly moving across the classroom floor, see Lopez calling a child’s name in a tall field of wheat or hear the hushed whispers of the younger children.

In his study of a single class Philibert forges an insightful exploration of childhood, finding truths that reverberate across the wider human condition and see Etre et Avoir morph into an epic of sorts, one that is played out on a small and familiar stage.

Watch the trailer:

Where can you find it?

For French speaking viewers, you can watch Etre et Avoir for free on YouTube. If you need the subtitles you can find it on Amazon and Curzon Artificial Eye for a couple of £’s.

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