The invention of childhood has been with us since the Victorians, but as the night-day contrast between Nicolas Philibert’s nonfiction To Be and to Have and Michael Winterbottom’s faux doc In This World demonstrates, it’s still far from a universal concept. Winterbottom is one of the most politically responsible filmmakers in England, and here he sets out to record the nightmarish but now utterly common voyage of illegal refugees, traveling with two uneducated Pashtun youths from freshly bombed Afghanistan to London. All-digital and slyly crafted, the movie is 90 percent raw experience—a relentless series of uncomfortable truck rides through low Asian wastelands—abetted by a stat-quoting BBC narrator and animated maps, a moving red line indicating the journey’s progress as if the two Afghans were Lewis and Clark.
Jamal, 13, is the savvier of the two, already equipped with a sprinkling of English; twentyish Enayat has the honest face of a toddler and is wary enough to doubt every coyote and money changer they meet. Both are first-time actors cold from refugee camps, and their integration into social landscapes is complete, among their countrymen or out of their element in Iran and Turkey. Little was rehearsed. Winterbottom uses the traits of documentary respectfully; his points of view are not consistently verité, but the textures are intimidatingly real. The odyssey rolls out matter-of-factly, as Jamal and Enayat traverse undeveloped hinterlands and negotiate one border after another before getting to Istanbul, and a sealed cargo box aboard a Mediterranean freighter becomes something of a Calvary for all concerned.
That sequence is prototypical Winterbottom: Locked into darkness with a half-dozen other paying emigrants, including a crying infant, for over 40 hours, the refugees begin unraveling and begging for release. The camera’s with them, catching only lighter-flash glimpses of their desperation. Then the baby goes quiet, and once it lands in Trieste we only see the truck get unpacked, methodically, from the outside, not knowing what we’ll find inside or who’ll still be alive.
The scenes in In This World aren’t developed dramatically—they’re just presented for their experiential torque (as with a night scramble in the Turkish mountains, the digital photography taking on the creepy, halting minimalism of a struggling download). Winterbottom was set on bare-bones realism, and so the scalding lyricism of ferocious terrain and sociopolitical absurdity seen in, say, Kandahar or A Time for Drunken Horses, is never resourced. In the end, Winterbottom returns to the Pakistani-border refugee camps, where scores of destitute kids smile at the camera, their stories untold.
Suffer the children in southwest Asia, but in Nicolas Philibert’s beatitudinous documentary To Be and to Have, the kids are in preternaturally kind and patient hands. A seasonal portrait of schoolhouse life in a rural French village, Philibert’s film revolves around Georges Lopez, an all-purpose teacher of grades K through 6 and quite possibly the most saintly and devoted man to ever take the job. Trim and dashing in turtlenecks and graying Vandyke, Lopez supplies the children with his unwavering attention and never raises his voice above a gentle sotto. The kids—precocious Marie, emotionally tenuous Olivier, introverted Nathalie, impishly absentminded Jojo—might all be stranded in an ignorant bucolic nowhere, but you never fear for them. On Lopez’s watch, at least, they’re an extraordinarily fortunate tribe, and they seem to know it, responding to their mentor’s civil patience in kind.
Unlike a similarly narration-free Wiseman exposé, Philibert’s movie—which has drawn doc-record crowds in France—never pretends the camera is invisible, but the same questions arise, somewhat hesitantly: How humane and generous is Lopez when the crew isn’t shooting? How sweet are the pupils? But doubts fade with time spent in the children’s presence—the magical dynamic we witness, of recitations and math problems and disciplinary chats and vocabulary drills, all of it performed with exacting sympathy and focus, is genuine to the touch.
Derived from a conjugation lesson, Philibert’s title is simple enough to cause spillways of interpretation, a reflex the film itself invites. Full of observed life, the movie is also a bit of a vacuum, and once we register our admiration for Lopez, we can hardly help contemplating the cold equations of the students’ futures, their uneducated families, and the rapturously desolate farmland around them. When Lopez delicately announces his retirement, it’s accepted in class with equanimity—only we are aware of the potential for darker days ahead.
“World in Motion: In This World Director Michael Winterbottom Finds His Personal Velocity” by Jessica Winter
“Past Imperfect: To Be and to Have Director Nicolas Philibert Goes Back to School” by Jessica Winter