Friday, October 26, 2007

[DVD] To Be and To Have (Être Et Avoir) (2002)

We Are The World

The thing that caught my eye to picking up this documentary DVD from the library was a cute kid with dirty hands soiled by paint, and the plenty of high flying accolades bestowed on the film by reputable critics and publications. Naturally my interest was piqued, but after watching this Nicholas Philibert directed documentary, while it had its charming moments, it doesn't warrant, in my opinion, some of the praises that it had garnered.

George Lopez is a teacher in a small town, and has to handle the challenge of educating his students, ranging from 3 years of age, to 11. Being a small town, naturally resources are limited, and he has not only to cater his methods to teach his students of different capabilities, but also to tackle a myriad of subjects, ranging from art, to mathematics, to language too. Talk about multi-tasking, and extreme dedication to the job (most I guess would have bolted given the workload, and responsibility), he doesn't find the need to raise his voice at those who misbehave, choosing instead to reason with them like adults, using his soft voice to win the most hardened of hearts.

But the stars of the documentary are the children. Philibert had revealed in an interview (included in the DVD as an extra) that he had deliberately chosen this particular school, for its logistics in supporting a film crew on site, but more importantly, for the size of the class of students, nothing too large that each becomes a passing face, but something manageable so that they can come across vividly. And having chosen this particular class of 12, and their teacher with his more than positive approach and attitude, are what made this documentary tick.

The children are as adorable as they are in need of some serious education. Early in the documentary we see them struggling with mathematics (OK, so they are the 3-4 year olds), but in one truly memorable scene was when one of them brought back his homework, and had to unwittingly enlist the help of parents and relatives to help him solve the problem. But alas, to my dismay, I later found it to be fabricated, which sort of spoilt my overall feeling toward this documentary - thou shalt not meddle with thy subjects.

However, what I thought was unique in Philibert's approach to documentary making, was the conscious decision to minimize the number of talking heads. There isn't any, not until the one hour mark, where George Lopez had to give a short history of himself and his underlying motivation to teaching, but other than that, it's almost like a fictional narrative in the way the subject of education is being handled.

Not one with big sets nor wanting to incorporate controversial elements, To Be and To Have is stoically quiet, and touching in the moments where teacher and students connect, especially when one is trusted enough to be a confidante, and dispensing good advice and words of encouragement to children under his charge. For those scenes I credit George Lopez for his relentless work in providing a firm grounding and good work attitude to the students under him. But alas, any notions I had on the film's honesty were somehow tainted by Philibert's revelation. Still not a bad movie, despite it being slow (to mirror the long, arduous journey one goes through to receive a decent education), but one which could have been a lot more sincere in putting forth the material.

Code 1 DVD by New Yorker Video comes relatively bare, with just 2 trailers - one Theatrical, running 2:20, and the other French running 1:38. Scene selection is available over 20 chapters. The audio is in French, with English subtitles available as an option. Anamorphic widescreen transfer seems perfect.

The only extras here are a poetry recitation by some of the kids, in case you have not gotten over their antics, though this feature runs only a short 2:47 minutes, and an interview piece with director Nicholas Philibert (20:45), who explains his approach to the documentary, and recounts certain anecdotes pertaining to the making of the movie, in particular his handling of the children. What I found surprising was, as a documentarian, he chose at times to interfere with his subjects in order to create that perfect scene he wants, rather than to showcase more objectively the material without filmmaker's intervention. Hmm.

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