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Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003

Getting the education of a lifetime

Etre et avoir

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Boku no sukina sensei
Director: Nicolas Philibert
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The differences between France and America have never been as exaggerated as they have of late, in the polarized climate surrounding President Bush's Manichaean approach to his war in Iraq. But the differences are real, and nowhere is this more clear than in the two countries' cinema.

News photo
Georges Lopez and some of his students in "Etre et avoir"

"Etre et avoir (To Be and To Have)," a huge hit in France, is the second popular documentary to look at schoolchildren this year. The first, you may recall, was Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," which began its inquiry with what drove two teenagers to gun down their fellow students in America's worst school massacre.

While a very good film, "Bowling" was also quintessentially American: full of conflict, confrontation, attitude, crisis and -- of course -- guns. "Etre et avoir," on the other hand, is about a subject so seemingly slight as to be ephemeral: a tiny rural elementary school nestled among the rolling pastures of the Auvergne, where a lone teacher expertly introduces his charges to reading and writing, while gently nurturing them in subtler ways as well.

Director Nicolas Philibert is a rarity among documentarians: He allows himself to be inspired by something that works. He holds up a bright, shining example of success, instead of following the usual path of carping and criticizing, of exposing failures and injustice.

Philibert had actually set out to make a film about how the times were increasingly tough for this rural French region, with bankruptcies and change for the worse inflicted by the move to corporate agribusiness. Instead, he ended up with another film entirely, a justifiably sentimental ode to community, and a school's place in the center of it. But while Philibert focuses on an amazing school located in a rural idyll, he hasn't forgotten the context. The underlying problem of depopulation that this community faces is clear enough from the one-teacher school educating students aged from 3 1/2 to 11 in the same classroom.

It's easy to make little kids look cute on film, and anyone who enjoys that won't be disappointed here. Much of the film's charm comes from its cast, with a lot of sympathetic laughs to be had while watching 4-year-old Jojo trying to write an "M" without too many curves, or 6-year-old Axel talking about the ghosts in his dreams.

But beyond the kawaii, there's a lot more to be gleaned from this deceptively simple film. First off is the nostalgia factor: Watching these kids struggle with multiplication tables, or learning how to form letters into words, prompts a fascinating journey into one's own memories of a period probably long forgotten. Words come so naturally now that we forget how difficult it was to grasp them the first time we slowly, painfully copied them into wide-spaced notebooks.

The more lasting impression, though, is the presence of the children's teacher, 56-year-old Georges Lopez, an extraordinarily patient man who calmly but firmly fills his students with confidence. This guy's got such an amazingly assured fatherly gravitas, that if they were going to do a fictional bio-pic, I'd say Jean Reno would be the obvious choice . . . except that Lopez could probably do Reno one better.

Philibert's style is so intimate that the camera seems almost invisible: neither teacher nor (incredibly) students play to it, and we get a relaxed, intimate view of the little dramas that play out in the classroom. It's simple stuff: Little Valentin crying for "Maman" on his first day at school, or a fight between two of the older boys. But what's remarkable is to see the wisdom and care with which Lopez handles every situation; how he teaches his students lessons well beyond what's in their text.

It's unclear what makes Lopez tick. He's unmarried and without youngster of his own, but clearly dedicated to the idea of helping children mature into the best they can be. In the one brief interview with him in the film, he describes the virtues of patience and tenacity. Anyone who's ever taught children will marvel at the atmosphere of calm and respect Lopez has created, and certainly will admire the way the film captures the potential of the student-teacher dynamic.

In these days of education budget cutbacks, unruly students and burgeoning class sizes, "Etre et avoir" is a moving reminder of what school could and should be, both for individual children, and for fostering a civil society. Not that it's ever didactic: Philibert's style is to show, not tell. Underlining this experience of a tiny school with warm, loving, personalized attention from a committed teacher is the sad fact that such schools are going the way of the family farm. But if this is an example of "old Europe," perhaps we should learn from it.

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