Monday, April 30, 2012

Bravo pour le maitre

Georges Lopez and his youngest charges
The initial impulse of cinema verite as it was first defined in the sixties was to capture the world as it is, without artifice, virtually without a point of view.  Frederick Wiseman is the filmmaker most often cited as coming closest to that ideal, but while Wiseman doesn't narrate his films or state a thesis or deliver a canned conclusion, but he frequently lets his subjects go on at such length as to expose themselves as foolish, vain, misinformed or incompetent.  Wiseman seems to feel as though the purpose of documentary is to let the subject hang himself with his own words and acts.

Etre et avoir (2002) is not having any.  [The title was translated as, literally, "To Be and To Have" but that means nothing in English, whereas the words are the basic building-block irregular verbs of French.]  Interestingly, the film evidently began as a pedagogical exercise to document successful teaching techniques for the use of fellow professionals.  But filmmaker Nicholas Philibert found that his first subject, Georges Lopez, teaching in a one-room school in rural agricultural France was not only a maitre (the common French idiom for teacher) but a master.

What are his brilliant techniques?  What is the terminology for his instructional approach?  I have no idea.   We don't see any specific methods employed, other than the tried and true.  There is nothing for what teachers call a Professional Learning Community to chew over here.  The secret ingredient that makes Georges Lopez a great teacher?


This man loves his students like we're supposed to and often not permitted to.  He pays deep attention to each one, knows their foibles and strengths, praises them and chastises them, a true in loco parentis.  He is more than a master, he is a father, the father of our imaginations, almost endlessly patient, kind and firm.  He settles disputes, makes students keep promises, checks their work, reviews their assessments, and lets them play, imagine, draw and dream.

Lopez and the film that contains him is so serene, poised, balanced and beautiful that it should be prescribed for any emotional upset or disturbance.  A few minutes with M. Lopez, and no one could be distressed-- all is tranquility and peace.

The neutrality of the camera is a thing to behold.  There is a beautiful stillness to the empty classroom, but even with the kids in action, the camera holds back, never intruding, letting them be themselves.  There is a priceless bit of slapstick with two 6-year-olds trying to operate a large photocopy machine, as they go on and on trying to get the book set correctly on the glass, struggling to push the right button, keep the cover down, to little avail as they keep producing bungled copies, soldiering on nonetheless.

Philibert builds in no false drama.  The children will move up to the next grade, the next school in the usual way.  There are no confrontations with angry parents, no meetings with Lopez's superiors (spiritually, there are none), no extraordinary crisis.  (One child is counseled as his father goes through a terrible illness, but still part of the ordinary fabric of life, a context into which Lopez attempts to put these events for his distraught student.)

Following its own quiet ways, the film's climax comes at the end of the film, the end of the school year.  He and the children say their goodbyes, some for the summer holidays, some forever.  He is all reassurance and warmth.  And as the last one clears the threshold, Lopez suppresses the tiniest choking tear.  It's more moving than all the agony of the throbbing orchestral tones of Titanic.

Etre et avoir is a reminder of just how powerfully less can be more, in life and on film.

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