PARIS — Nicolas Philibert, helmer of Gallic sleeper hit doc “Etre et Avoir” (To Be and To Have) about a village school, is battling a lawsuit for compensation filed by its subject, teacher George Lopez.
For industry watchers, this raises questions about whether the success of a doc is due to the filmmaker or his subject, especially in a climate when TV reality programs have turned ordinary folk into entertainment products.
“I want to win the legal battle for me and for the documentary genre in general, which is very fragile,” Philibert said at a press conference on Monday evening. “For me, one of the founding principles of documentary filmmaking is to not install relationships of subordination. If you start paying people in documentaries, they become your employees.”
Lopez has filed a suit in Paris against Philibert and his producers, including Maia Films and Films d’Ici, for violation of his image and “counterfeit,” and is asking for E250,000 ($291,306) compensation. He argues that the film, which is a copy of his work in the classroom, is his intellectual property and that he was not paid for its use.
The retired teacher is also suing weekly mag Telerama, which distribbed pic’s videos and DVDs, and France Televisions Distribution and Canal Plus.
Lopez, who for 20 years taught English, math, drawing and cooking to classes of 13 or so children in a one-room school in the Auvergne mountains, has filed another suit in the south of France asking for $26,212 compensation for his promotional work and a $31,451 penalty.
The film’s moving depiction of the relationship between Lopez and his students wooed auds in Gaul, where it sold 1.8 million tickets and picked up a handful of awards. These include the Prix Louis Delluc for French film, the Cesar for editing, the European Film Award for documentary and the French Union of Film Critics kudo for French film of the year.
When the film debuted in August, 2002, Lopez — who had already given interviews — asked to be paid for his promotion work. The production companies offered him $43,680, which he rejected. He asked for an employee’s contract, which was refused.
Lopez and his students walked up the red carpet when the pic was shown at Cannes that year. Now he said he “feels betrayed by the whole crew.”
“I gave interviews, I traveled to debates, festivals, and for all that I got nothing,” Lopez told Gallic daily Le Parisien. “They found good subjects to make a successful film and once it was successful, they told us to get lost.”
Philibert responded Monday, saying that a film, even a documentary “is not raw reality. It’s the vision of the filmmaker.” He added that “the influence of TV reality shows is very, very strong” and has “stained” the art of documentaries.
Gilles Sandoz, of producer Maia Films, said that the net receipts from the pic, including video, came to $2.3 million, shared between producer Arte, Maia Films, Films d’Ici and a Sofica. For Maia Films that represents “a year of survival for he company, which allows us to reinvest in other projects.”
Philibert said he received a salary of $139,777 for three and half years of work and $116,481 as his percentage from the receipts.
Roland Rappaport, lawyer for the defense, said that the case wouldn’t be heard until spring, but that decision for the lawsuit filed in the south of France would be rendered Nov. 5.