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With: Georges Lopez
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Nicholas Philibert
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 104
Date: 05/19/2002

To Be and To Have (2003)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Teacher Feature

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many critics have singled out 2003 as the year of the documentary. Not only did we see a proportionately high number of good documentaries released, but also they actually began to make money. Water cooler discussions changed from the latest episode of "Friends" to the virtues of Capturing the Friedmans, Winged Migration and The Fog of War. I have a theory that the success of "reality" television has led to this increased interest in documentaries; people have rediscovered the pleasures of peering into someone else's private life. Of course, this means that, for better or for worse, some of the methods of non-fiction filmmaking have seeped into "reality" television and vice-versa: talking heads, testimonials and archival footage.

But the best documentary of 2003 -- and for my money the best documentary of the past four or five years -- eschews all of those techniques and winds up with something so emotionally pure and so historically significant that it will certainly hold up to viewings many years from now. Nicholas Philibert's To Be and to Have follows a year in the life of Mr. Georges Lopez, a schoolteacher who teaches a class of 13 students ranging in age from four to eleven, commuting to school from all over France's rural Auvergne region. Philibert's camera simply records Mr. Lopez's lessons without comment or intrusion. Philibert once followed in the footsteps of documentarian Frederick Wiseman (High School, Domestic Violence), who also favors a lack of commentary, but prefers to dissect the world's institutions, poking holes in their idealistic structures.

In To Be and to Have, Philibert clearly looks at this classroom with affection and with a certain amount of nostalgia. It was surprising how quickly and how vividly some of these classroom scenes came back to me, reminding me of my own early days in school. Mr. Lopez presides over these memories-to-be with consummate organization and calm. With the utmost patience, he coaxes children to wash their hands, finish their work or hurry up out of the rain. The most powerful moments come when he tries to have heart-to-heart talks with two of the students, the shy Nathalie and the troublesome Olivier (whose father may be dying of cancer). Lopez leads both conversations, asking 'yes' or 'no' questions and getting very little reply. He reads their faces (they both cry) and tries to understand their emotions without words.

Philibert also spends a good deal of time with the playful Jo-Jo, who can't pay attention to any one thing for very long. During a field trip, Mr. Lopez becomes interested in trying to teach Jo-Jo how far the numbers go -- how far we can count. He keeps going, trying to get Jo-Jo to realize that, yes, we can count forever if we really want to. But Jo-Jo's attention span wins out and Mr. Lopez must give up and attend to someone else's problem. Such small miracles are plentiful in To Be and to Have, and more often than not you may find yourself unexpectedly smiling. Mr. Lopez's teaching skills alone make To Be and to Have a worthy document, but Philibert makes it into a great film by tapping into the frustrations, joys and miracles of learning and childhood.

This DVD should be a treasured part of any library or classroom for years to come. New Yorker Video's release comes with two trailers, an interview with the director and footage of children reciting poetry. In 2014, Kino Lorber re-released what looks to be the exact same DVD.

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