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Être et avoir (To Be and to Have)

It may seem surprising that a documentary about a one-room village school in the middle of the Massif Central became a significant box-office attraction in its native France. But once you actually see director Nicolas Philibert’s very special film, its success seems wholly justified. Capturing an academic year in the life of ever-patient teacher Georges Lopez and his young charges, the results are simply captivating, a return to the sort of human basics that are so easily forgotten. Remember the time when you were certain there was another number after six but you just couldn’t put a name to it? Well, relive it here in the company of mischievous little Jojo and his peers, as they struggle with decidedly variable attention spans to get some purchase on the French equivalent of ‘the three Rs’ (‘Être et avoir’ being the key verbs ‘To Be and To Have’). Of course, there’s a certain ‘aaah’-factor, and even subtitling can’t dampen the humour of the things-kids-say variety, but it’s the essentials of watching infants grow up before your very eyes which proves so compelling, as the experienced Philibert patiently builds up a richly compassionate picture of the learning process.
We’re so used to the restless handheld images of fly-on-the-wall TV by now that it comes as a pleasurable surprise to find a documentarist putting great stock on long takes, and carefully composing the background of passing seasons in the surrounding Auvergne farmland. Still, it’s a crucial component of our willing immersion in unfolding events, with the developing bond between teacher and children touchingly evident as the end of term approaches and the older pupils contemplate the following year at the big school with some anxiety. Philibert breaks the non-invasive spell only once and it’s a masterstroke: an interview with Monsieur Lopez which reveals his own peasant upbringing and the satisfaction, if not the privilege, he feels in being able to pass on knowledge to the children in his care. No wonder he’s since become a national hero in France.
(France, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby stereo SR. 105 mins.)

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