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Être et avoir

A film to play truant for, To Be and to Have is a warm, serene look at primary education in the French heartlands. This is the latest feature from documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert and it is a measure of his growing reputation that it was selected for this year’s Cannes film festival. Now Philibert’s film has gone on to become the sleeper hit of the new French season. Philibert takes his camera inside a surviving rural institution: the classe unique, a single-class school where all village children study every subject on the curriculum, from arithmetic to gym, under a single schoolmaster. The school is in the Auvergne region, where kids aged three to eleven study under the benevolent guidance of 55-year-old Georges Lopez, who, having been a teacher for 35 years, is about to retire. By unobtrusively setting up his camera and simply watching, Philibert shows how one man’s powerful personal commitment
can make all the difference in young hearts and minds. This is a feel-good film in the noblest sense: it is genuinely concerned about its subjects and not manipulative. Philibert has lucked out in landing a teacher like Lopez, whose manner with the children is always caring, patient and even-handed. Indeed, since the film’s release Lopez has become a sort of national hero, the embodiment of the finer qualities of French country life. The film-maker has also found a group of children whose personalities are warmly magnified by his attentive camera: among them four-year-old Jojo emerges as the film’s irresistibly hapless comic star, whose escapades include a hilarious run-in with a photocopier.
France, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby stereo SR. 105 mins.

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