Absolute classics: Etre et avoir (2002)

3rd June 2005 at 01:00

How to teach *****

Rustic beauty ****

Observing child development *****

Etre et avoir (To Be and to Have) caused a minor sensation, part of an impressive wave of commercially successful documentaries, including Bowling for Columbine, Spellbound and Capturing the Friedmans. It joins a long cinematic tradition of putting schools under the microscope, most notably Frederick Wiseman's High School (1960).

Actor-turned-director Nicolas Philibert argues that the small things in life matter, and that the documentary should observe them without sermonising. His 60 hours of footage, shot over 10 weeks before editing, demonstrate his methods in action.

Etre et avoir is set in the heart of the Auvergne, in a single-classroom school containing all the village's children, from nursery age to their final year in primary. The French curriculum is famously centralised, one apocryphal story being that on the same hour of the same day, the nation's children are on the same page of the same textbook, all year round.

Watching the work of the school's only teacher, it becomes clear how much scope for individual initiative there is. Indeed, the teacher's close and closely observed relationships with his charges are what make this award-winning movie so rewarding.

There may be a shortage of male primary teachers, but the documentary's protagonist Georges Lopez bucks the trend. At 55 and about to retire, he nevertheless gives his all to making sure that mathematics, grammar and concepts such as infinity are understood.

For the older children about to move to secondary school, aged 11, his roles include helping them make that transition as people as well as pupils. For Natalie, this means overcoming her shyness; for the older boys, harmonising the competing demands of schoolwork and local agriculture.

Lopez confesses that he decided he wanted to become a teacher while he was a primary school pupil.

While Lopez comes across as the guru, his fellow "stars" are the children.

Although they start off as anonymous, by the time their teacher is seeing them off, their personalities are clearly established. Jo-Jo has an impertinent face and a knack for trouble, while Olivier is riddled with self-doubt. These traits are modified during the school term.

The skill evident in making this documentary is almost equal to that of Lopez in teaching.

Graham Barnfield


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