Skip to main content

Playback: Nicholas Philibert's 'Etre et Avoir'

By Peter Richardson

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

One year into making my first documentary, Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon, I lost everything. Not in the literal sense; I still had a roof over my head and food to eat. But I lost the film. A catastrophic hard-drive failure wiped out most of my project files- files that I thought were automatically backed up by my computer, but weren't.

I believe a part of me, subconsciously, knew that I wasn't backing up the project files. Part of me yearned to sabotage the film, to see it end so that I could go back to narrative filmmaking.

My first foray into feature documentary had not been easy. The hardest part was the realization that, in the end, I wasn't in control; the world was-whether in the literal sense of being in the right place at the right time to get the shot that I needed, or in the technological sense of an ill-timed equipment failure. This was a painful realization, especially after spending four years in film school primarily making narratives, where I was in control of everything. The hard-drive crash was a turning point: I either needed to give myself up to this process or move on to a different line of work. So I surrendered to documentary, and spent the next year re-editing the film, trying to make it the best I possibly could.

When I first saw Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have), I realized the transformative power the documentary form promises if we can only match our craft with trust, patience and perseverance. The film draws us into its magical world if we permit it, if we don't expect something of it, but allow it to unfold for us. And that's only possible because the filmmaker, Nicholas Philibert, trusted a moment, an individual and a place to give him what was needed in order to tell this story.

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

Which isn't to say there is not a great deal of intention, labor and craft in Être et Avoir. The film is carefully, elegantly, invisibly constructed. It does not simply witness; it reveals. There is form and thought behind every frame, edit and action. Yet the film shows what can happen in front of the lens if we are patient enough to stop worrying about a cutaway or a reaction shot, and simply wait.

In small, telling moments Être et Avoir offers the viewer an entirely different way of seeing the world. The film almost seems to view the children the same way it does the animals (mostly cows) in this region of France-as equal beings inhabiting this earth, admirable in their respective eccentricities and absurdities, but also in the beauty in their manners, relationships, culture and ways of being.

Être et Avoir is a film not so much about a subject, but about a way of looking at the world. It suggests the possibility of documentary if we are quiet and we listen, if we look upon the world with wonder and trust, if we give ourselves up to the process and let the world tell us what it wants to be-and what it is.

Être et Avoir is available through New Yorker Films.


Peter D. Richardson is the director and producer of How to Die in Oregon, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and received an IDA Award nomination for Best Feature. His first documentary, Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon, played Sundance in 2006 and was recently re-released through the Sundance Artist Services online distribution initiative.