Etre et Avoir
, dir. Nicolas Philibert. France, 2002.
A small village in Auvergne: a dozen or so children; one teacher; a year in their lives.
This unassuming documentary follows a year (plus) in the lives of Georges Lopez and his students in a one-room school in rural France. The filmmaking is competent enough, but the main charm of this work lies in watching Lopez and his students, both separately and together.
The children range from pre-school to (approx.) Gr. 6, with at least a couple of youngsters who will steal your heart. – I fell hard for feisty little JoJo (Johann), and the quiet, watchful, (Vietnamese? Chinese?) Letitia. Philibert chronicles small incidents, struggles, and milestones in the children’s lives; illuminating, as he does so, something of the cultural and educational differences between the French and North American societies.
One local review panned Etre et Avoir
, castigating Lopez for being too strict, unsympathetic, and dictatorial. In my opinion, all untrue. I just don’t think the critic had the appropriate cultural context for viewing the film. Early on, there is the scene that I believe prompted her ire: young JoJo, given the task of colouring (brown for the bark, green for leaves; to be done within the lines, of course) dawdles and fails to finish his “work” in time. As a result, he’s kept in during recess. Lopez gives him a little talking-to; JoJo becomes sad and weepy. But, rather than acting as a martinet, Lopez is - I believe – consistent with the norms of French expectations and behaviour. Adam Gopnik, in Paris to the Moon
(a delightful book – elegant, witty, and interesting), notes that the most liberal French school he could send his son to, would still be stricter than the strictest American school. And, given that context, - and the evident warmth and respect that the children show Lopez – his discipline does not seem out of line.
(Here in North America, of course, I imagine that there would be angry parent-teacher meetings about the effect of such on the child’s “self-esteem”. Not to mention – horrors!- the uncreativity
of colouring within the lines
. To which I say: chacun a son gout
But back to the film. Small, charming incidents: JoJo and Letitia (comically) try to figure out how to use the photocopier; a kid pins up a poster that’s taller than him; JoJo again, cleaning paint off his hands; a group culinary effort, the younger children beating the eggs while the older ones flip the crepes; tumultous and joyful winter toboggan rides; a field trip to the “big school” that some of the older kids will be moving to when they graduate at the end of the year.
We also glimpse the lives of some students outside the classroom. Olivier, who struggles with Maths (several adult members of his family struggle with him, as they collectively try to help him with his homework), is given considerable responsibility in his chores: he drives a tractor with ease, helps to muck out the barn, fixes lunch for himself and his sister.
Lopez, during an interview, talks about his own background: the son of a former labourer and farmer, he always wanted to be a teacher. Even as a child, he played “school” with his cousins and playmates. For his family, his ambitions as a someone not
working in the fields represented a significant step up the social scale. On spring weekends, we see him weeding the garden – his home is on the upper floors of the schoolhouse, a solidly built, unpretentious, stone building. During winter, the warmth of the schoolroom stove, and the cheery window and wall decorations, present a welcome contrast to the harsh weather without.
Lopez loves his job, and seems good at it. At the end of the school year, the children bid him farewell with obvious affection, equally obviously reciprocated. As his teaching career – twenty of those years in this village - nears its close, he mulls his plans for the future. As for his past, it seems – to him and us- a life well spent.
(My notes for this post were in a backpack that got stolen; I hope I’ve gotten the names of the children correct. If not, - apologies.)