To Be and to Have
Directed by Nicolas Philibert. (2003, NR, 124 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 16, 2004
When To Be and To Have received the Best Documentary award at the Valladolid International Film Festival (Spain), jurors cited the film specifically "for its placid view of rural education as a Utopia which is possible." Indeed, Nicolas Philibert’s lovely and contemplative film, which follows a year in the life of a one-room schoolhouse in the farming village of Auvergne, France, does look a lot like educational nirvana. That has everything to do with the schoolmaster, George Lopez (or simply "Monsieur," as his students dutifully call out). Nearing the end of a 35-year career, Lopez has in his care a dozen children, ages 3 to 11, all demanding to be taught simultaneously. I think it’s safe to say that most of us would run screaming from that prospect, but Lopez exhibits superhuman patience with his squirming charges, speaking always in a soft, comforting tone. (All it takes is an almost imperceptible shake of his head to get a kid with a pencil stuck up his nose to cease and desist.) He’s Mr. Rogers for the new millennium, black turtleneck-hip and French, with lesson plans ranging from multiplication tables to how to flip an omelet properly. His teaching methodology is well-documented; the man himself, however, is somewhat of an enigma. The film runs a full hour before Lopez sits for his first and only interview, and none of the children addresses the camera (although they do often sneak looks at it). Instead, Philibert chooses a fly-on-the-wall approach, and he reaps surprising rewards in the process, milking dramatic tension from the simple act of the stealing of a kindergartner’s eraser. Her little face wavers in the face of such injustice, and it’s truly edge-of-the-seat stuff, wondering: Will she cry? Will she tattle? (Neither, it turns out; blessed with a 5-year-old’s blissfully short-term memory, the injustice is quickly forgotten.) Small, quotidian crises like this provide the ample, if unexpected, dramatic heft to this piece, and 100 minutes spent watching children struggle and delight in learning is, at least in my book, 100 minutes happily spent.