“Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small it takes time—we haven’t time—and to see takes time, like having a friend takes time.” —Georgia O’Keeffe
ore often than not, documentaries embrace the histrionic. What we are usually given when a documentarian decides to spend time and money and effort in constructing a film is an examination of the peculiar, if not the sensational or grotesque. I’m not enough of a film historian to know if this is a strictly recent phenomenon, but I know it’s what we’re seeing lately: Smashed and Bowling for Columbine focus upon teenage lives maimed and destroyed as a result of drunk driving and guns, respectively. Two Towns of Jasper and Capturing the Friedmans investigate horrific acts of racial hatred and murder, and child molestation, respectively. Okie Noodling and Hands on a Hard Body both take self-congratulatory gazes at the antics of low-income rural people in the South (they’re so poor and stupid they’ll do the funniest things for money or pleasure—really hilarious. It’s Cops for the NPR set. It’s also revolting filmmaking.)
Then there is the Nicolas Philibert’s Être et Avoir (To Be and to Have). What is To Be and to Have about?
To Be and to Have is, like the television show Seinfeld, about nothing. The essence of that show was most famously summed up in the episode “The Pitch” where George proposes to the producers at NBC a show “about nothing” with himself and Seinfeld and their friends as the main characters (George is, of course, based upon Jerry Seinfeld’s real-life friend and co-producer of the real show, Larry David. Eat your heart out, Charlie and David Kaufman).
“Yeah, nothing happens on the show,” says George. “You see, it’s just like life. You know, you eat, you go shopping, you read. You eat, you read, you go shopping.” And so we watched this show about nothing because it served as an amusing vehicle for reflections on the absurd. Seinfeld helped us find humor in the seemingly arbitrary events of postmodern life through the wit of the writers and actors and through its role as a collective arena for the examination of our disjointed lives.
But . . . well, I don’t want to get too deep here, if only because, hey, it is only a sitcom. But if you scratch the surface of Seinfeld too deeply, and you’re able to deflect Michael Richard’s brilliant comic timing for a moment, Seinfeld could be a pretty terrifying show, precisely because it was about nothing. The show itself sometimes vaguely alluded to this fact. In the final episode, to take an example not at random, the four main characters casually look on and make jokes as a man is robbed at gunpoint. They are later sent to prison for “doing nothing.”
But it’s more than that: the dread of Seinfeld resides in the fact that there is no purpose or focus or direction or meaning in the thoughts, words, or deeds of any of its characters. The characters make sense of the incidental events of their lives by mocking those events and themselves. It’s a sarcastic version of whistling in the dark, a glaringly threadbare coat to wear against the cold of the world. Nothing is a scary place.
“What did he fear? It was not a fear or dread, it was a nothing that he knew too well. It was all a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order. Some lived in it and never felt it but he knew it all was nada y pues nada y nada y pues nada.”
Unless nothing is a place where the seemingly arbitrary events of life are not arbitrary at all. Nothing happens in life, that’s true—at least most of the time. Or as Kurt Vonnegut puts it, “we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.” But the case can be made, as it is so beautifully in To Be and to Have, that a willingness to wait and listen and attend yourself carefully to the smallest details—and the smallest people—will necessarily yield meaning and purpose on a majestic scale.
Être et Avoir chronicles approximately six months in a rural French one-room schoolhouse. There are no shocking revelations or dramatic turns: we don’t find out that the school is being closed or that the stern yet gentle teacher, Monsieur Lopez, has a grisly skeleton in his closet. Indeed, we learn few facts. Instead, we watch and we listen.
The content of the film is utterly simple. We watch M. Lopez teach his thirteen students, ranging in age from 4 to 12, over the course of a school year. The learning process takes place through informal and creative conversations as well as through rote memorization. He deals with them corporately and in individual encounters. He speaks with them about their handwriting, their conflicts with one another, and their aspirations for the future. When one student says she also wants to be a teacher, he jokes about himself. When another student breaks down in tears about his father who has cancer, he listens gently.
In sum, we see both teacher and student learning how to live with one another with purpose and dignity. M. Lopez, as any good teacher should, takes the lead through example, loving and serving his children with diligence and respect, as if they were true human beings—which, of course, they are. And which, of course, they are becoming, in large part because of his skill and patience as a teacher and friend.
The form of the film matches the content in austere beauty. Charles Taylor astutely remarks that Philibert’s studied and careful camera has “the effect of a highly observant person intently focused on what he’s seeing, watching expectantly to see what will be revealed.”
It is clear that Philibert is also a good teacher. His approach to his subjects is very much in line with the approach that M. Lopez takes with his students. Philibert’s patience with his subjects, and with the viewer, pays off in an immense gift of a film that feels a bit like a spiritual retreat. You are left feeling both drained and refreshed with a vision of what it means to treat others with dignity and love, and with a longing to do the same.