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Nicolas Philibert's 2002 documentary To Be and To Have (tre et Avoir) captures something genuinely surprising, a vision of a world out of time. The film chronicles a year in a one-room schoolhouse in a rural French commune. Here in Saint-tienne-sur-Usson, Puy-de-Dme, there are only 200 people, mostly farmers. Their children, all of them, go to this one-room school, where they are taught by a single teacher. This so-called "single-class school" is perhaps unheard of in modern America, and is relatively rare even in France.
When the film begins, the teacher, Georges Lopez, has been teaching for 35 years, 20 of them at this single-class hut. His class consists of eleven youngsters, with ages ranging between three and twelve. This will be his final year serving the community in this fashion-his retirement is imminent, and a new teacher is expected.
Day in and day out, he crafts lessons for this disparate group of children and guides them through the task of growing up. From learning how to conjugate French verbs to doing their sums, from learning how to write to handling interpersonal conflict and fighting, these children are dependent on, and indebted to, this patient man. Life's lessons come in all packages: the consequences of shoving a classmate into the mud, the proper technique for washing ink off your forehead, collaborating with a classmate on using (and breaking) a photocopier, struggling to keep your composure when describing your dad's ongoing battle with cancer. For the children of this remote town, all of the significant steps in their young lives are taken under the guiding eye of one man. They say it takes a village to raise a child-here it takes one man to raise all of a village's children.
Screened out of competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, To Be and To Have was enthusiastically received by critics and enchanted audiences around the world. It soon won numerous awards, and became France's top-grossing documentary. It garnered a handsome 2 million profit in its European run (it had only very limited distribution in the United States)-an impressive feat for a modest, shot-on-video documentary about a schoolteacher in a small town.
That was when the troubles began.
Mr. Lopez announced that he planned to sue the filmmakers for unauthorized use of his image, and demanded 250,000.
Up until that point, critics around the world had hailed Mr. Lopez as the hero of this quiet little movie, a dedicated teacher who put children first and sacrificed his own needs to better the lives of others. The movie was praised as a testament to the importance of teachers, and an honest study of the fragility of childhood. Many reviewers found the movie heart-achingly nostalgic for the simple lifestyle evident in Saint-tienne-sur-Usson. And then, with his lawsuit, Mr. Lopez suddenly seemed to metamorphose into a greedy man corrupted by celebrity, an ogre from the modern world intruding into this quaint haven.
Overnight, Mr. Lopez went from being the heroic poster boy for an underappreciated profession to being the whipping boy of angry editorials denouncing him. Meanwhile the French film community anguished that if Lopez's suit prevailed, it would set a damaging precedent of subjects being remunerated for their participation in documentaries. The filmmakers' argued that "reality should never be paid for" and that to capitulate to Lopez would spell the "death of the documentary - economically and spiritually."
"By paying the subjects of the film, you change the relationship entirely. The director then gets the right to tell them what to do, to advise them on what to say, to film things over and over again. You leave the sphere of documentary behind and it becomes reality television, or even drama," said Philibert's lawyer, Roland Rappaport.
Let's step back from the hyperbole and saber-rattling and try to get to the bottom of what was really at issue in this case.
To Be and To Have focuses on Lopez's teaching style, his gentle demeanor, his calm authority. If it was unexpected for a documentary about an anachronistic French schoolhouse to find such success, and the documentary happened to emphasize the personality of one teacher, then it is reasonable to conclude that in every material sense, Lopez was the film's star, and deserved to be considered its co-creator.
Lopez was also a prominent force in marketing the film. He attended (with some of the children) the Cannes screening, and made numerous and extensive media appearances besides. The film's unprecedented box office success must be credited in part also to Lopez's efforts outside the classroom on behalf of Philibert.
And here's where things start to get complicated. The filmmakers recognized the significance of Lopez's contributions, and they recognized that the singular success of the film made it possible to share the wealth in return. The producers donated 15,000 to the school and offered Lopez a one-time payment of 37,500. The terror of paying a documentary subject for participation had obviously not yet taken hold of them, and there does not seem to have been a fear that paying Lopez this sum would permanently damage the institution of documentary filmmaking.
But Lopez did not accept this payment, and instead sued for more. Much more. Lopez would later explain that he was never motivated by money, but that he felt that the filmmakers had misrepresented their intentions and exploited him and the children as a consequence.
"We were misled," he said, "The production company told me and the children's families that they were making a small documentary about the phenomenon of the one-teacher village school and that the film would be used primarily for educational purposes. They said it would have a restricted screening and never discussed marketing the film to make it such a commercial venture."
According to Lopez, the widespread distribution of the film exposed intimate moments of these children's lives to a level of publicity no one had anticipated. It was one thing to allow these private moments to be filmed for a local audience, for educational purposes, but when they are then turned into entertainment for millions of strangers, the consequences to the children are significantly different. The very moments most likely to be memorably touching or funny, were moments the children in question may well have desired to forget or be forgotten. Lopez said that the children had become targets of ridicule, that they were traumatized by the sudden fame, and that one child had developed a fear of the dark and begun wetting the bed in response to it all.
"Other children have been teased at their new secondary schools because of their involvement," said Lopez. "All have been subjected to a great deal of stress as a direct consequence of the film."
Lopez also noted that whatever he said about the negative effects of the film's distribution on his students, the media would never let go of the idea that he was doing it for the money. "It's not socially acceptable for school teachers to seek money. I'm meant to live a quiet life in the countryside, eking out a reclusive retirement on my meager pension. It's a clich, but that's how people think," he said. "I think a lot of people haven't understood what's motivated my legal case. I'm not doing this for the money, I'm simply trying to make the film company recognize my rights."
That this happened in France amplified the situation in certain ways, too. In the United States, reality television has supplanted traditional documentaries to such an extent that the question of paying a subject for their participation raises fewer fears. More to the point, despite the United States' reputation as a litigious society, Lopez would have had a harder time finding a cause of action here. But in France, longstanding and wide-reaching privacy rights grant subjects a profound measure of legal control over the use of their image, and it was under these laws that Lopez brought his claim. And it was under these laws that Lopez lost.
The court concluded that Lopez's appearance at Cannes and his work publicizing the film constituted a tacit acceptance of the use of his image, and so disallowed his claim.
What was left was a lingering distaste, and a troubling array of contradictions. Viewers of the film saw Mr. Lopez as a quiet hero who eschewed materialistic comforts; press coverage of the lawsuit depicted the same man as a greedy figure, seeking to profit from his 15 minutes of fame. Critics around the world praised the film as a loving tribute to these children and their way of life; the families of nine of Mr. Lopez' eleven students filed their own lawsuits alleging the film had irreparably damaged their children. The filmmakers voiced their worry that paying subjects for participating in a documentary would undermine the integrity of the process and cast doubt on the reality depicted in a film; the troubled history of To Be and To Have suggests that the "reality" depicted in a documentary film is never the whole truth anyway.
By David Kalat
Amelia Gentleman, "Film's fallen hero fights on for his class," The Guardian (10/3/2004)http://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/oct/03/film.france"French film star teacher sues," BBC News (10/13/2004) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3187656.stm