French Cinema Essay

How do you explain the critical and commercial success of Être et avoir [To be and to have], a documentary film about a small primary school in rural France?French CI

Etre et Avoir is a documentary about a one-room village schoolhouse in rural Auvergne, where Georges Lopez teaches 13 children, ages four to twelve, on how to read, maths and so on” ( This fly-on-the-wall type of documentary have many layers and can be interpreted in different ways than the statement above. It could be a documentary about rural France and the extinction of rural schools, or the extinction of both rural school and simple rural life and the ever shrinking agricultural land. However is much more about the relationship between a very formal teacher and his pupils, with variation of being enduring and at times strict and some what authoritarian. This documentary was highly successful worldwide, surprising everyone from participants to critics, so how one explain a low budget documentary to become so popular? This essay will examine the success of “Etre et avoir” both critically and commercially around the world.

It is very rare that a documentary makes enough money to be a commercial success, apart from Michael Moore documentaries not many in this category manage to attract a lot of attention. Nicolas Philibert had made another school type of documentary earlier in his career “Le pays des sourds, and that documentary did not attract many spectators as this one. A decade later since the film was release, it is still not very clear how much money this particular documentary made. An article in “The Independent” in 2004 suggests “The movie attracted 1,800,000 cinema-goers and earned €10m in France alone, the biggest takings for any documentary in France for more than a decade. It was also popular in art-house cinemas in Britain and the US, taking about €1m in each” ( This documentary was not only successful commercially but it was critically acclaimed, earning Philibert prestigious awards such as the Prix Louis Delluc and a Bafta, to name a few. However how one measure what will be a successful documentary or not ?

For some critics the success of “Etre et Avoir” falls on the relationship between Mr. Lopez and his pupils, “Lopez’s enlightened philosophy is encapsulated in a conversation with a mother worried about her daughter’s reticence, calmly stressing that he wants the child “to develop and be happy” ( To others are the poetic scenes captured by Philibert, “this filmmaker is capable of conveying that life is beautiful and that the ordinary is extraordinary” (Muller, T. S., 2002, p.25). In reality it might be a combination of both, the simplistic relationship between teacher and pupil and the poetic rural land of Auvergne, and furthermore the enduring behaviour of the children while learning simple tasks, such as reading. However one need to remember that a documentary is not only capturing an image of reality and the real world, a documentary is a piece of imagery edited together to create a sense of reality. The manipulation of images falls on the filmmaker and what he wants the audience to perceive from that piece of image, the chosen scenes are captivating and catch the imagination of the audience.

When spectators go to see a film, fiction or non-fiction, they want to care about their characters, they want to be part of that reality and feel romanticised. A film will be a success if the audience embrace that reality, even if momentarily. To be able to achieve this a filmmaker have to cleverly manipulate the images, creating an enduring and romantic idea. As stated by Philibert himself, he chose images that shows M. Lopez and the pupils in situation that are somewhat poetic to watch, however he could portrait M. Lopez in a very different light “ In ten weeks of shooting I saw M. Lopez get cross only two or three times and we decided not to keep those scenes because they would have given the wrong impression” (Falcon, R., 2003, p.29). It is clear that Philibert wanted the audience to care about these people daily lives in a somewhat harsh rural place, caring in this case it becomes more important than what is real. The sudden success with the audience might also be explained on the fact that this documentary differ from other types of documentaries. It is not heavily loaded in information, it does not require the audience to take sides, to agree or disagree with what is being presented.

Austin Thomas made a case study on audience perspective, and in his research he mentions that ““Etre et Avoir” is seen to succeed in a large part by refusing some of the informational content expected of the mode, and by offering instead a degree of emotional engagement more likely to be associated with fiction film” ( Although some people feel that information is needed to compliment a documentary, it seems that the poetic engagement between teacher and pupils forgives the lack of background information and slow pace in this one. However the audience success in “Etre et Avoir” is not only due to emotional engagement, but also a complex combination of different factors. A film and/or documentary to be successful need a combination of factors, it needs a good distributor in the film market, it needs to do well critically and it helps if have some awards attached to it. In 2002 at the Cannes Film Festival, “Etre et Avoir” was in “out of the competition” category, which are films that are not competing for awards but that Cannes Film Festival think is worth screening to the media. Jill Forbes and Sarah Street says that Cannes “became extremely important for critical and commercial interests and for European attempts to sell films on the basis of their artistic quality” (Forbes,J. & Street,S.,2001, p20).

Once it had the media attention at Cannes it could jump the next hurdle, be critically acclaimed. Surely the documentary can hold its own story to be critically acclaimed, however be at the Cannes Film Festival one of the oldest and most important film festival, its a good indication of the direction that will go. Once it gained critic review, the producers could sell it for as many countries as they could at the film market and attached them to a good distributor. The next step to attract mass audience is a good and efficient marketing campaign, a tool so powerful to a filmmaker that in 2007 “The Dark Knight” launched a viral transmedia marketing campaign called “Why so Serious?”, using hundreds of web pages, interactive games, mobile and etc with 10 million participants in over 75 countries ( “The Dark Knight” went to be the biggest opening day of all time with top grossing film of 2008, just because of its marketing campaign.Even though “Etre et Avoir” is not a blockbuster film, its marketing campaign was crucial to attract mass audience that would not necessary watch a documentary. Austin Thomas mentioned that “the British poster and press ad images for Etre et Avoir gave no indication that this was actually a documentary, and some spectators reported that they did not know that it was one until they saw the film” ( Clearly the producers used this strategy to attract a more eclectic mass audience in different countries, making this documentary the most profitable documentary of 2002.

In conclusion, this essay tried to shed a light on the success of “Etre et Avoir” critically and commercially. Nicolas Philibert made a beautiful observational documentary, it does lack in background information, leaving us wondering what are we missing, however its poetic scenes and some what comic situations might be the one or two reasons why it had several good reviews and subsequently commercial success. Perhaps the success of this documentary with the audience might be measured by our own feeling of nostalgia, of something that we are losing to give place to a world wired in technology. Or might be just the result of a combination of factors such as: a good marketing campaign, awards, good critical reviews and a good dose of polemic. In my view, it is hard to explain why some documentaries are successful and others are not, nonetheless this documentary manages to jump all the hurdles of filmmaking and achieves what every director wants, his personal world view to be seeing by many people as possible.


Falcon, Richard (2003). “Back to basics”, “Sight & Sound” Volume 13, number 7, p.29

Forbes, Jill & Street, Sarah (2001). “European Cinema: An Introduction”, Palgrave Macmillan, p.20

Muller, Tue Steen (2002). “To Be and To Have”, “Dox: Documentary Film Quarterly” p.25


Austin, Thomas, “Seeing, Feeling, Knowing: A Case Study of Audience Perspectives on Screen Documentary”, Particip@tions Volume 2, Issue 1 (August 2005), (Retrieved April 19th,2012)

Bisson, Julien


(Retrieved April 20th,2012)

Lichfield, John

“When avoir becomes more important than Etre: now les enfants sue for slice of French film action”, (Retrieved April 20th,2012) important-than-atildeordftre-now-les-enfants-sue-for-slice-of-french-film-action- 563947.html

Dawson, Tom, “Etre et Avoir (To Be and to Have)”,(Retrieved April 19th,2012),

You Tube, “Why so Serious” viral campaign, (Retrieved April 19th,2012),


Nolan, Christopher

The Dark Knight” (2008)

Philibert, Nicolas

Le pays des sourds” (1992)

Etre et Avoir” (2002)

Note from author:  for learning purpose only, do not copy.


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