Movie Of The Day: To Be And To Have (2002)

Être Et Avoir, known in English parts of the world as To Be And To Have, is a French documentary by Nicolas Philibert, probably best known for the landmark film Louvre City. Philibert and a small crew spent ten weeks filming teacher Georges Lopez and his small contingent of students from ages 4 to 11 in the small village of Saint-Etienne-Sur-Usson, in central France. What results is an intimate portrait of both the teacher and his students as well as a chronicle of their year together.

Nicolas Philibert, one of France’s most acclaimed documentarians, has his own personal style, one that is very rare and possibly unique in the medium. Indeed, Philibert doesn’t put himself on camera to then start traipsing around asking questions like, say, Michael Moore. Nor does he point his camera on someone’s face and asks him to talk, you know, “in an intimate way”. Far from it. Philibert simply films. He doesn’t intervene, he simply films people in their daily activities. It’s pretty much like the camera wasn’t even there, you’re watching reality, plain and simple. Except for one short scene in the middle of the film, you won’t find anyone look at the camera and start addressing you. No, you just go on and observe these people’s story as though it was fiction, except it’s not. The review continues after the jump, along with a clip from the movie, subtitled in English.

This approach is very interesting, and pays off with a closeness that you simply don’t experience with other documentaries. You are there, you follow these people’s lives, you get to know them, appreciate them, relate to them, etc… The intimacy here is undeniable. There are plenty of funny moments, and touching ones too, as well as a couple of extremely emotional parts. Être Et Avoir may not be an “important” documentary such as, say Michael Moore’s films or An Incovenient Truth, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very cute little film, and a pure joy to watch.

One of the film’s strength is that it doesn’t feel like a documentary (even though it doesn’t feel like a piece of fiction either). In fact ask Nicolas Philibert about his work and he won’t qualify his films as documentaries. And the man has a point, as through his editing, Philibert establishes a narrative close to fiction, with some children emerging as the leading characters while others take a back seat. Somewhere between documentary and fiction lies Être Et Avoir, the very real story of a few kids and their teacher.

Être Et Avoir was extremely successful both critically and financially throughout the world and won several awards, including (but not limited to) Best Documentary at the National Society Of Film Critics Awards USA, Foreign Language Film Of The Year at the London Critics Circle Film Awards and the Audience Prize at the 2003 Sacramento French Film Festival. In his review for The New York Times, noted critic A.O. Scott said:

While the film does inquire discreetly into the sometimes dysfunctional home lives of some of the children, it is less a social document than a portrait of an artist. […] As such it is tremendously affecting without ever seeming platitudinous or sentimental.

Verdict: A very nice little film to watch if you run into it. Être Et Avoir currently holds a 7.9/10 on IMDB and a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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