TO BE AND TO HAVE (Etre et avoir)

(director/editor: Nicolas Philibert; cinematographers: Katell Djian, Laurent Didier and Hugues GĂ©mignani; music: Philippe Hersant; cast: M. Georges Lopez; Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gilles Sandoz; New Yorker Films; 2004-France-in French with English subtitles)

“This is a film that all aspiring teachers should see, as well as veteran teachers who might have lost track of what teaching is all about.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A truly amazing documentary about dedicated teacher Georges Lopez, who presides over a one-room schoolhouse in the rural farming district in the Auvergne region of Northern France. His class of a dozen children, ages 4 to 11, has a curriculum that covers math, grammar, reading, penmanship, drawing, and making crepes. Lopez separates the class by age, having them sit at different tables while he makes the rounds giving them personal attention (the old-fashioned way) and guidance in a loving and precise and understanding manner. By giving separate lessons and making the rounds to ensure that each child understands what he’s teaching–whether it is in the academics or lessons in practical life, the teacher is there for all of them in a calm, sensitive and caring way–never raising his voice and always keeping the classroom orderly and alive with energy for learning. The classroom is highly structured and he is an unflinching disciplinarian (not the punitive kind) who compassionately corrects all the banalities that go with teaching, such as discipline problems, inattentiveness, sloppy work, and lack of motivation.

The film covers the school year between December 2000 and June 2001 as the dignified single 55-year-old teacher, a 35 year teaching veteran, is on the verge of retirement after teaching in this school for the last 20 years. It is filmed mostly in the classroom, and focuses almost completely on the lessons–with one home visit to a student being tutored in math by his family and one school picnic trip. There’s also one break in the classroom action where the teacher is interviewed about his personal life by the director, who remains off-camera. Mr. Lopez tells of his Spanish father who emigrated to France and was a hardworking farmhand, who hoped for better things for his son. The teacher muses he couldn’t imagine doing any other kind of work as he enjoys teaching so much, especially the good feelings he gets from the students. He wisely says of his profession, “It takes time and personal involvement and the children return that again and again.” This is clearly shown in the emotional last day of school, where the teacher fights back tears as all the students embrace him. The students might not completely understand what a special teacher they had, but undoubtedly their lives will all be immeasurably better off for having Mr. Lopez as their teacher.

To Be And To Have is the largest grossing documentary film ever released in France. It was marvelously directed in a quiet way by Nicolas Philibert (“In the Land of the Deaf”), who makes this into a surprisingly moving experience as it affords the viewer a chance to see the dynamics and learning process of a real classroom function with an unobtrusive camera catching the harmonious teacher-student relationship. Lopez’s special gift and love for his profession always comes through whether talking about the imperfect tense or diffusing a fight stemming from an ongoing conflict between two of the oldest boys or holding a parent-teacher conference about an extremely introverted girl. It was a privilege to be allowed into Mr. Lopez’s classroom and see him work his magic with the children, and to watch as he inspires in them a belief in their worth. This is a film that all aspiring teachers should see, as well as veteran teachers who might have lost track of what teaching is all about.