Film Notes

Film Notes #7: Etre et Avoir (2002)

* SPOILER WARNING: Details about the film will be revealed *

Nicolas Philibert‘s documentary about a small rural school in France is Number 7 in my 30 day Film Notes series.

For newcomers, the deal is that I must watch a film every day and make notes about it, with the following rules:

  1. It must be a film I have already seen.
  2. I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  3. Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  4. It can’t be a cinema release.

The point is to capture my instant thoughts about a movie and my overall film diet for 30 days, as well as post interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on Etre et Avoir (2002) (English translation: “To Be and to Have”) I watched on watched on a DVD on Wednesday 28th March.

  • Acclaimed French documentary about a primary school in the Auvergne region.
  • Very sparse and simple opening titles reflect the style of what is to come.
  • Shot of the turtles waddling about the classroom unexpectedly funny because it is real.
  • Opens in winter – was this shot over a six month period?
  • I’d forgotten that French van headlights are yellow
  • The school is in Saint-Étienne-sur-Usson in the Auvergne region of France
  • Camera movements very still and editing very considered, presumably not to freak out the kids
  • Mr Lopez looks remarkably like Steve Jobs
  • Opening lesson of drawing and discussion is quite soothing to watch
  • Bit where kid says he’s seen a ghost and scares the girl opposite him is charming
  • One can’t watch this without thinking of Antoine in THE 400 BLOWS (1959) even though the teacher in Truffaut’s film is a dictator
  • Philibert captures a lot of the human drama of a primary school classroom
  • Natural lighting had to be used to keep the pupils reactions real, but one wonders how the film differed from the unfilmed lessons
  • The way Lopez talks to Jojo about the fish and the purpose of school is remarkable – patient, considered and wise
  • English schools can learn a lot from the cooking scenes – notice how Lopez doesn’t mind mistakes and injects genuine fun into them.
  • Lopez mediating the fight between Julien and Olivier is visually interesting – notice how the camera stays on the two boys and we only hear the teacher.
  • The shot is held for an unusually long time – was this out of necessity (e.g. conditions of filming in a school) or a stylistic choice?
  • Hard to watch the kid on the verge of tears – shows what a tough time childhood can be
  • Do five year olds drive tractors in France?!
  • Kid at kitchen table learning pointless maths exercises brings back flashbacks!
  • Maybe every generation of parent has to cope with hopeless arithmetic set for their children?
  • Mr Lopez seems genuinely interested in the fact that one of his pupils wants to be a vet – why can’t all careers advice be like this?!
  • Getting pupils to draw and think about numbers is a very good idea
  • This was presumably shot in the winter of 2001-02 as it premiered at Cannes in May 2002
  • The problems the parent discusses of her child being distant are handled by Lopez with a tactful wisdom (also highlight the long term dilemma of teaching maths!)
  • Lopez says he’s been teaching dictations for 35 years and at this particular school for 20.
  • The discussion of Tahiti and Brittany is classic
  • “Middle school” seems such a long way off – funny how life divides up into different periods
  • Child washing paint off his hands and a wasp provided the poster
  • Lopez handles the Jojo pushing incident like King Solomon
  • Kid of five preparing pasta! No wonder the French have the best chefs in the world
  • Lopez talking to camera about 60 mins in is almost a monologue scene, breaking with the verite style
  • He clearly is a natural born teacher – loves the job and finds it genuinely rewarding.
  • Lopez’s father was a Spanish immigrant from Andalucia – maybe he left because of the Civil War?
  • This part of the film should actually be used in teacher recruitment.
  • Kids using photocopier unexpectedly hilarious – even adults still get things upside down.
  • Despite Lopez’s explanation I still don’t understand the whole masculine/feminine thing in the French language.
  • I realise language evolved this way but does it really make sense to apply gender differences to objects like windows or pens?
  • Nice cut to the photocopier repair man, hinting that the two pupils broke it earlier.
  • College sequence brings memories of making the leap from primary to secondary school.
  • Film accurately reflects how massive that seems at the time.
  • Discussion of counting billions between Lopez and Jojo is actually philosophically interesting.
  • Love the way Lopez handles Julien in the garden – his father presumably has throat cancer? – but he handles the situation with his customary wisdom and sensitivity
  • Natalie’s birthday is a nice small snapshot (one of many)
  • The shot of rainbow suggests the filmmakers were either a) unbearably patient b) lucky or c) it was a stolen shot
  • Jojo on the train: “What does derail mean?”
  • Idyllic picnic in the French countryside.
  • New pupils arriving (so small!) show the cycle
  • Two Valentins reflects the fact that classrooms often contain more than one name
  • The way Lopez handles the infant boy crying for his mum is very cool indeed
  • Scene where Lopez deals with Natalie’s shyness contains more drama than many features.
  • The leaving scene makes French kissing on the cheeks seem normal (even to an Englishman).
  • Shot on film rather than digital
  • Used natural light because spot lights would have freaked out the kids
  • There are brief moments when you can catch the kids glancing into the camera
  • Philibert wanted to make a film out of the drama of “life’s little nothings”
  • Childhood is a very big deal whilst you are actually living through it – the film reflects this
  • He never does films “about” but rather “with” – desires to tell a story without heavy handed narration or didactic voiceover
  • This makes it very different from the instructional form of documentary that we often see on TV
  • The film is a experiential reconstruction of events rather than
  • Filmmaking choices were often made on the hoof
  • Sensitive film stock used along with wide angle lenses (and presumably quiet Arriflex cameras)
  • It was never intended to be an inspiration to teachers, but it may have that effect on viewers
  • Patience, ability to listen and sense of calm are key to Lopez’s success as a teacher
  • His words
  • Note how pupils are encouraged to help one another – helps build confidence and solidarity
  • Philibert thinks the documentary form can have a poetic and metaphoric quality rather than just showing facts
  • The film is a wonderful counterblast to the notion of teachers as lazy or useless (the standard right wing line about the profession)
  • Ultimately it is about how the transmission of knowledge and experience can be a wonderful thing.
  • The real life postscript to the film is incredibly sad.
  • I prefer to remember his words as he trims his hedge: “Everything that you put in, the children always return it.”