I’ve always thought that movies could be about simple, everyday things,” says documentary filmmaker Nicolas Philibert. “The subject matters less than the way of looking at what’s around us.” Philibert’s latest, To Be and to Have (currently in theaters), radiates the tranquil watchfulness of an attentive student in its depiction of a one-room schoolhouse in rural France. “I was drawn to these small country schools that bring together children of all ages,” says the director, who estimates he visited at least 100 locations before settling on a school in the Massif Central region. “It’s still a pretty wild, isolated area, with an inhospitable climate. I wanted nature and the change of seasons to play a dramatic function in the film.”
Shot over the course of seven months, To Be and to Have begins in the midst of a severe winter as lone teacher Georges Lopez prepares to retire, lending a bittersweet cast to his deft management of the four-to-11-year-old kids: He mediates quarrels, demystifies addition, and moderates a peer review on beginners’ penmanship (renderings of “Maman” draw notices ranging from “It’s a little bit good” to “It’s lots of good”). “In order not to disrupt the class, we needed to be as discreet as possible,” says the Paris-based Philibert, who used a single camera and a three-person crew. “But that doesn’t mean we tried to make ourselves forgotten or invisible; it wasn’t a question of filming the children surreptitiously.” He shares with his acquaintance Frederick Wiseman an uncanny knack for empathic, near invisible immersion in his chosen milieu, as well as an interest in institutions: Philibert’s previous docs include Every Little Thing (1997), about patients at a psychiatric clinic readying their annual summer play, and In the Land of the Deaf (1992), a portrait of deaf communities for which Philibert learned sign language.
Improbably riveting, To Be and to Have‘s chronicle of the school and the enormously admirable Lopez does take on an idyllic, ethereal glow—some reviewers have gone so far as to call the film nostalgic, but the director demurs. “Naturally, for many people the world of childhood evokes a lost paradise, but I never tried to play off this sentiment or exalt the values of the past,” Philibert explains, adding, “I grew up in the city, and when I was young, I hated school! Making this movie gave me the opportunity to be happy at school for the first time in my life.”
Michael Atkinson’s “review of To Be and to Have