The Unpredictable Revelations of Nicolas Philibert
by Howard Feinstein
French docmaker Nicolas Philibert shoots with an eye toward the big screen -- an approach that has paid off for his most recent work, "To Be and To Have" (2002). The film was shown in the last New York Film Festival; New Yorker Films will open it in theaters in New York today; and it was one of five films in the Museum of Modern Art's series "Nicolas Philibert: The Extraordinary Ordinary" (shown at MoMA Gramercy in June). Back home, "To Be and To Have" has broken records for released documentaries (if you discount the quasi-doc "Microscosmos"), with more than a million spectators viewing from among the incredible 300 prints in circulation. The impish, 51-year-old grandfather explains his success simply: "Documentaries don't have to be didactic. They can have emotion and tell stories."
When asked about his decision to shoot "To Be and To Have" in the mountains of Auvergne, he responds with a short treatise on the nature of the film medium. "Flat landscapes oppress me. There is something BEHIND mountains. Cinema for me is both what you show and what you don't show; what you see and what you guess; what's in light and what's in shadow; what's in the foreground and what's in the background. This is cinema, unlike television." He has no problem working it both ways, however, accepting money from both French TV and the National Center of Cinematography. In point of fact, his films show well on small and big screens.
What distinguishes Philibert's films from those by other documentarians? The most salient characteristic is that they are about process rather than product. Look at the MoMA selection: In "To Be and To Have," he is not interested in students' report cards: He wants to see, over time, how children adapt to an unusual teaching site. He does not care about a tour of a school for the deaf in "In The Land of the Deaf" (1992). Instead he prefers to leisurely follow students not only at school, but also in their homes and the places where they hang out. Walking into museums and viewing mounted exhibitions bore him: He would rather survey the minutiae involved in putting them together, as you can see in both "Animals" (1994) and "Louvre City" (1990). In "Every Little Thing" (1996), he doesn't focus on the actual performance of an annual play staged by patients in a countryside psychiatric facility: He checks out the preparatory work, not to mention the daily routines and the maintenance of the building.
"To Be and To Have" unfolds during four distinct seasons in one of France's few remaining one-room schoolhouses in rural St.-Etienne-sur-Osson, population 200. The teacher, the charismatic Georges Lopez, presides over 13 students, ages 3 to 15, who are separated by age into three groups that work at three separate large tables. Lopez has lived above the school for the past 21 years and is set to retire. He is at the center of the film, interacting as teacher/friend/father/confessor to the children, each of whom is filmed in his or her budding individuality. They laugh, they cry, but, save for an end-of-the-year farewell, the film is not sentimental.
Philibert has his favorites among the students, particularly the small, spritely Jojo. "He was the most spontaneous. Others were shy and reserved. I don't like to force things. I leave them in peace." He shot more than 60 hours of footage ("the film came together in the editing room") with a crew of four, doing most of the camerawork himself, without any extra lighting brought in. He says that trust was the key factor in filming as if no outsiders were present. As time passed, he and his technicians blended more and more into the woodwork.
His fly-on-the-wall approach has helped enable him to gain for long periods of time incredible access to sites normally forbidden to strangers, and certainly to filmmakers. On set, his patience allows him, and ultimately us, to watch actions unfold in a non-linear fashion, to see people reveal themselves in unpredictable, often astonishing, ways.
"To Be and To Have" is, on one level, about the difficulties of growing up. You might expect "In the Land of the Deaf" to be about the hardships faced by the deaf, but it is about the joys of difference. As usual, Philibert confounds our expectations. Deaf adolescents forge bonds with their deaf peers of all classes and races. Theirs turns out to be a very special world that we who hear do not inhabit. One deaf teacher explains how disappointed he was when his child was born hearing. He wanted the baby to have what he sees are advantages and gifts lacking in those who take their hearing for granted.
The subject is perfect for Philibert: He is a master at finding the right balance between sound and silence in all of his films. He observes teachers, hearing and deaf alike, working patiently with their charges. The students perform plays in sign -- by the way, not an international language? -- and enjoy the cinema. It may be a cliché, but the deaf do compensate with a heightened visual sense.
Not that all is fun and roses. Several youths communicate about the trauma of first hearing sounds with hearing aids, shattering the silent world to which they were accustomed. Some deaf adults tell (some do speak), or sign, that signing was forbidden in France when they were young, keeping them isolated. All in all, "In the Land of the Deaf" is a happy film. (Here he also favors one child, cute, energetic Florent.) The church wedding of a deaf couple is not only beautiful, it is funny. The bride and groom can't follow everything the minister says, so they make mistakes -- and laugh.
Philibert always manages to create intense feelings of both group energy and extreme solitude: for example, the buzzing students, then Georges completely alone, in "To Be and To Have"; and the bonding among deaf youngsters alternating with their individual admissions of periods of isolation in "In the Land of the Deaf." The same goes for "Animals." Here he follows the restoration of stored stuff animals, many of which require skinning, formaldehyde, and the like, formerly on display in the iron-and-glass zoology gallery, which has been closed since 1965, of the 19th-century National Museum of Natural History. The place becomes a beehive. Philibert shifts between various groups of workers-oddball zoologists, meticulous taxidermists, blue-collar assistants -- and individual, mostly exotic, stuffed animals, shot head on (a favorite Philibert trope), staring with artificial eyes into the void. In "Every Little Thing," he observes the patients both when they are collaborating and when they are alone, off in his or her own universe.(This is the only film that feels a tad exploitative, filming too intimately the mentally challenged.)
But nowhere is the contrast between group and individual strongest than in "Louvre City." The film begins, as most of his do, with still images and almost no sound to set the mood. Here is the grand Louvre museum in Paris, an old palace with miles of hallways and subterranean vaulted corridors, as it appears in the dark, when workers are on their way in at night to clean for the day ahead. What follows is something of a day in the life of the Louvre, but not at all chronological, of almost every aspect of maintaining the structure and caring for the priceless 300,000 pieces of art within its walls. He films the cleaning people in the same way he shoots the suited, self-absorbed curators: strong class stratification is present, but Philibert does not judge the hierarchy and one's position in it. All 1,200 employees are important to the running of this huge organism.
Upon being asked why his films are all set in institutions, he replies, "It's not so much institutions that interest me: It's learning to live together. It's not so easy to learn to respect others and their idiosyncracies." His work reveals a great capacity for empathy and love.