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To Be and to Have

Author John Cech
Air Date 2/4/2005

To Be and to Have Transcript

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That’s the sound of young children, quietly working on their penmanship in the 2002 French film, To Be and to Have, directed by Nicholas Philibert, which is available at most video stores. This documentary follows a group of children, some of their parents, and the children’s teacher, George Lopez, through their school year in a village deep in the rural Auvergne region of France.

Phillibert takes us inside this school, where all the grades, from kindergarten through fifth, meet in the same room. It’s an interesting mix, to say the least, with science experiments taking place just a table away from the hard work of making sevens turn out right on the black board. But the focus is less on academics than on its main characters, the children — like Johan, a first-grader who’s nicknamed Jo-Jo, who can’t seem to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time; Julien and Olivier, two fifth graders who are friends but are always fighting; and Nathalie, another fifth grader who is so painfully shy she barely speaks. You meet a number of their folks, most of them dairy farmers, and sit in on parent teacher meetings. There’s a poignant scene in which Mr. Lopez and Nathalie’s mother talk about her daughter’s solitary nature. And you probably haven’t seen math homework done quite the way Olivier’s family tackles it, involving everyone from his mom, then his uncle, then his dad and sister and brother. Jo-Jo steals the movie whenever he’s on — talking about what he wants to be when he grows up (a motorcycle cop), doing some unsupervised xeroxing with his classmate Marie, and, hilariously, trying to scrub the paint off his hands and face.

Throughout this miracle of a movie, there’s the calm, sure presence of the teacher, Mr. Lopez, who steers the kids through their days, with their dictations, crepe-cooking, field trips, and the important passages some are making, especially the move on to middle school. He gets Olivier and Julien to promise to be friends and help each other out — especially if one or the other is being bullied. He gets shy Nathalie to agree that she will report back to him about how her transition is going. And when the children leave the school for the summer amidst a flurry of kisses, he can hardly hold back the tears, and you won’t be able to either.

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Posted in Education, Film