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Nicolas Philibert's 'To Be and To Have'

By Maryann DeLeo

From Nicholas Philibert's 'To Be and to Have.' Courtesy of New Yorker Films

"To Be and To Have isn't a documentary in the traditional sense, with a demonstrative and didactic approach," says its maker, Nicolas Philibert. "I wanted to tell a story."

That "traditional" documentary is passing away, and this approach, which Philibert so masterfully executes in his story of a teacher and his young students in a one-room schoolhouse in rural France, is becoming more conventional than unconventional. 

Philibert doesn't tell us that learning is difficult; he shows us with scenes of boys and girls struggling at home while their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles all gather around to attempt to teach them what they need to learn. And he doesn't tell us that great teachers are good listeners, and that they respect children and know how to reach them;  he shows us—especially in a scene where a young boy and Georges Lopez, the teacher, talk about the student's father, ill with throat cancer. The boy breaks down and cries, and Lopez tells him, "Sickness is part of life; you try to stay healthy and then it comes along and you have to live with it." 

It's the confident way the scenes are captured that is so skillful—you don't feel the intrusion of the camera; it keeps a distance, yet the film maintains its intimacy. In another scene, where Lopez is addressing two boys about a fight they'd had, Philibert films only from the teacher's point of view—a powerful, yet simple way to capture the moment with the boys and watch their expressions, rather than shooting back and forth from teacher to student.

Part of a filmmaker's skill is having a sixth sense about who will be a great character; Philibert certainly had that when he chose Lopez. As a teacher, he shows patience and love for his students, and becomes an important part of the storytelling. 

At its heart, To Be and To Have is a love story, about teacher and student, parent and child, learning and teaching. But the film is also about becoming part of a community outside the family, about learning how to get along and how to take care of those younger and less able than you. And the film is about loss: Life will change, friends will grow up and go on to other schools, teachers will retire....

Philibert respects and loves life; he sees the miracle of simple moments and captures them so that we might all appreciate and be in awe of daily life.


Maryann De Leo is a documentary filmmaker. Her latest film,Chernobyl Heart, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary—Short Subject and will be aired on HBO in September.