Just one teacher serves a tiny town in rural France. Find out how he does his job.
Dir. Nicholas Philibert, 2002, 104 min
Netflix led me to expect a very different movie than what I got out of To Be and to Have. The site’s description of the documentary makes it sound as though it is a political piece about the state of education in France. In fact, this documentary is something far more personal and universal. It just goes to show that you should never, ever trust Internet synopses.
In the middle-of-nowhere hamlet of Saint-Etienne-sur-Usson, France, there live only around two hundred people. All children of all ages attend the same school, and are instructed by the same single teacher. Georges Lopez has served this community for over twenty years, and he is seemingly the perfect teacher, almost the Ideal of a Teacher. He’s endlessly patient, gentle and firm in just the right amount for whatever a situation calls for, and will do whatever it takes to help a student learn. This is a movie about what makes a good teacher, and it works by holding up the embodiment of the good teacher for all to see.
There’s no plot to speak of here. The camera acts as a fly on the wall through dozens of little events and adventures through education. We see difficult lessons that must be overcome, schoolyard scuffles that must be arbitrated, and chores at home that must be taken care of. Only once do the filmmakers ever interact with Georges, when they ask him why he does what he does. His answers aren’t revelatory, but they speak to the simple nobility at the heart of the teaching profession. He just wanted to help people.
There’s an uglier side to this movie that I suppose I would be remiss not to mention. After its release, Lopez attempted to sue the filmmakers for a cut of the film’s profits, claiming that they mislead him about their intentions in making the doc. Supposedly, they lead him to believe that it was intended for a much smaller audience than it actually reached, and that some of the children featured in the movie suffered trauma because of the exposure.
I can’t speak to the validity of his claims. All I can say is that it really doesn’t change the way you should read the movie itself. It is its own being, and the only outside context that should be allowed into its reading is that which directly pertains to its content. You may think that Lopez’s lawsuit is rather pertinent, but it really isn’t. It came about only because of the movie’s influence, the observation effect. Pay it no heed, because it has nothing to do with what this film is about.
This is one of those “movies where nothing happens” that finds profundity in the smallest, most fleeting moments. This may translate to “boring slog” for some, but such films, oddly, are usually better able to hold my attention than most other kinds. To Be and to Have is an exceptionally quiet and rather lovely little piece.