When avoir becomes more important than être: now les enfants sue for slice of French film action

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The Independent Online

The unlikely worldwide success of a charming documentary film about a French village school - Etre et Avoir (To Be and to Have) - continues to generate legal and financial ructions worthy of Hollywood.

The unlikely worldwide success of a charming documentary film about a French village school - Etre et Avoir (To Be and to Have) - continues to generate legal and financial ructions worthy of Hollywood.

The movie's idyllic theme was mostly a question of être, the immutable way of "being" in rural France. The unpleasant sequel in the real world has mostly been about avoir: who should "have" a share of the profits.

Seven of the nine families whose children appeared in the film, shot in the village of Saint-Étienne-Sur-Usson in the Auvergne, have announced that they are suing the film's director, producers and distributors for at least €20,000 (£13,500) each. Last year the undoubted star of the movie, Georges Lopez, the gentle beardedteacher, sued the film-makers for €250,000, accusing them of "plagiarism of his lifetime's creation", his school. Two court judgments have gone against him but his action continues.

The parents who have now decided to follow his example are claiming damages from the director, the celebrated and award-winning documentary-maker, Nicolas Philibert, and the movie's producers and worldwide distributors.

"From the beginning, we were told that the film was just a documentary," said Valérie Ronches, who has two children in the movie. "Now we find that it is a cinema film, which is a commercial success. And we have got nothing out of it."

Although the parents acknowledge that they signed agreements allowing a documentary to be made, they say that their children were turned, in effect, into unpaid actors. At least 20 scenes in the movie were invented by the film-makers and staged, the parents claim, including a gripping sequence in which a six-year-old girl, Alizé, gets lost in the countryside during a school picnic. "It may have been a documentary in the beginning, but it became something else. M. Philibert provoked lots of scenes and asked the pupils and the teacher to behave in such and such a way," Mme Ronche said.

The parents are demanding to see a detailed account of the film's worldwide profits since it first appeared in 2002, with a view to claiming a share for themselves. In the meantime, they are demanding interim payments of €20,000 per family.

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.

The producers have been evasive about total worldwide profits but insist that they have been ploughed back into other documentary projects. According to movie industry estimates, Etre et Avoir, when video and DVD sales are included, could gross €20m worldwide. It cost €2m.

Lawyers representing the director and producers say that the parents' action raises serious legal and artistic questions. "If they win, it would be the death of documentary film-making," said Maître Roland Rappaport. "The families saw the film before anyone else. Everybody was happy. Children and parents were invited to Cannes [in 2002] for the premiere. No one made the slightest demand."

The film shows the patient and loving devotion of M. Lopez to a dozen children, aged between three and 11, in a single-class, village school in the Puy- de-Dôme département in the centre of France. The teacher, approaching retirement, explains in a couple of lengthy monologues that he never sought promotion, or a better-paid job, because he found fulfilment in awakening the minds of generations of children in a small community.

The children, all ages taught together in the same room, are followed lovingly by the camera in their devotion to M. Lopez, their petty quarrels, and disappointments and their triumph in conquering the seemingly impossible problems of learning to read and do simple sums. The scenes in the school are intercut with footage of the seasonal changes in the countryside.

The other star of the movie is a lovable eccentric seven-year-old, Jojo, whose face and paint-covered hands were used on publicity posters. His parents are amongst those suing the film-makers. They claim that his hands were painted for the poster, proving that he was, in effect an actor, not just a member of the public who happened to be filmed by a documentary-maker.

Negotiations have been going on for months to try to prevent a second legal action. The film's makers have offered to buy equipment for the school or the village and to give presents to the children, but they have refused to create the legal precedent of making "systematic payments under threat". The parents say that they are not "Indians on a reservation who can be bought off with a few glass beads".