Village teacher sues hit film makers for share of millions

A dedicated, quietly spoken village teacher, who became the unlikely star of a French documentary that charmed cinema audiences worldwide, is suing the makers for a share of the profits.

The film, Etre et Avoir (To be and to have) - a documentary about a tiny, rural school - was the unexpected, runaway triumph in the French cinema last year, with more than one million tickets sold. It has gone on to become a success in the US and around the world, grossing millions for its producers.

The film's central character, Georges Lopez, a gentle, bearded teacher approaching retirement, was paid nothing, although he was offered a one-off payment of €37,500 (£26,000). Now he wants a bigger share of the proceeds.

He has brought a legal action in a Paris court, accusing the film's director and producers of "plagiarism", on the ground that the movie copied his life-time's creation - his single-classroom school in a small village in the Auvergne.

M. Lopez, 60, is also accusing the film's makers and distributors of infringing his "image rights" and - in a separate legal action - he is seeking compensation, including holiday pay, for his work promoting the documentary.

His lawsuit has set a cat among the pigeons in the French cinema. If M. Lopez wins, anyone who is featured in a successful documentary - starting with the adorable and comical children in Etre et Avoir - could demand a share of the profits.

M. Lopez is the undoubted star of Etre et Avoir. It shows his patient and loving devotion to a dozen children, aged between three and 11. In a couple of monologues, he explains how he never sought promotion, or a better-paid job, because he found fulfillment in awakening the minds of passing generations of children in a small community.

He was hailed in the French press as a "hero of the republic" and compared by one reviewer to the unsung stalwarts of ordinary life played by James Stewart in Hollywood movies.

For many months, M. Lopez has basked modestly in the glory of the successful film, giving interviews and press conferences about his work at the school. A year ago, however, when it was clear the movie was destined to be a huge success, he began to ask for a share of the profits. He was offered €30,000 and €7,500 in expenses for his promotional work.

He rejected the offer and has now sued the film's makers in the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris for using his image without permission and for contre-façon, which translates literally as "counterfeiting" or plagiarism. His lawyer, Maître Benoît Maylié, argues that the "lessons given by M. Lopez to his pupils were an original work". The film is therefore a "work based on another work".

He also claims that M. Lopez never gave formal permission for his image to be used.

M. Lopez seems, above all, to believe he was used by the makers and then abandoned. "I spent days in cinemas replying to questions from spectators, on interviews and trips abroad and then one day, I was thanked and dropped," he told the provincial newspaper, La Montagne, yesterday.

Maître Roland Rappaport, the lawyer representing the movie's producers and its award-winning director, Nicolas Philibert, described the teacher's legal action as "sad". He said: "The film is not about M. Lopez's lessons but about a single-classroom school in a small village, about the parents, the children, the landscapes," M. Rappaport said.

"Even if the lessons were the subject, they would not belong to M. Lopez but to the national education service."

Other French film makers were divided yesterday about the justice of the teacher's claim. Some said that it could make all future documentary film-making into a legal nightmare. However, Daniel Karlin, a documentary maker, said: "I think the teacher is right. The producers have made loads of money. They should have given some not only to the teacher but also to the children."

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