Category: Documentary

School of Babel (La cour de Babel, France 2013)

Mariam, a Libyan girl who has been living in Egypt attempts to write in French at the start of SCHOOL OF BABEL. photo courtesy New Wave Films

Mariam, a Libyan girl who has been living in Egypt, attempts to write in French at the start of SCHOOL OF BABEL. Photo courtesy New Wave Films

School of Babel is a very effective and highly enjoyable documentary about young people from around the world meeting in a Paris classroom where they attempt to gain enough fluency in the French language to benefit from the French education service.

The film’s structure is conventional, offering scenes from a year in the ‘adaptation class’ taught by Brigitte Cervoni. The students range in age from 11 to 15 and according to the pressbook there are 24 students from different countries speaking many different ‘first’ languages. Director Julie Bertuccelli, who also shot the film, editor Josiane Zardoya and the sound crew have done a brilliant job in creating a seamless narrative, weaving together the individual stories into a collective narrative that gives a very positive view of the French education system. Music by Olivier Daviaud is unobtrusive and supports the narrative flow. Bertuccelli visited the school twice a week over a year and recorded hours of footage which scenes have been compiled into scenes and edited to make a 94 minute film.

The film only strays out of Mme Cervoni’s classroom a couple of times – to see the students going to the exam hall and to follow them to a film festival in Chartres where they screen a film they have made. (It was because of a previous festival entry that the director became aware of the school situated in the 10th arrondissement.) Occasionally, however, we are offered a view of the playground (not sure of the French word) taken from a high angle. This acts like one of Ozu’s ‘pillow shots’, punctuating the flow of mini-stories about several of the students in the class and signifying the passage of time. The narrative succeeds because these mini-stories are interesting and together they give us an insight into what it must be like for these students. I’ve seen at least one UK review refer to these young people as ‘immigrants’ and I think that this is misleading and, in the present climate of xenophobia promoted by UKIP and the right in the UK, rather disturbing. Several of the young people are ‘passing through’ Paris – some might be refugees others are temporary residents because of their parents’ work.

I suppose it is quite logical that some reviewers should refer to the previous successful French film The Class (Entre les murs, 2008). That film was about a mainstream secondary school class, though it did have a mix of students from different African and Caribbean communities. It also features a teacher who thinks he knows how to teach and who gets into conflict with the students. School of Babel has a very experienced teacher who is calm and understanding but also firm. We mainly experience her methods through seeing how the students react to her pedagogic ideas. The film starts with students writing their names and nationalities in a French sentence on the blackboard. Then they are asked to tell each other how they would say ‘Bonjour’ in their own language. There are conflicts because of religious differences and ignorance of other cultures and at least one young man makes what is clearly a racist comment. Mme Cervoni keeps everything under control and gradually the group learns to work together.

Close-ups are a feature of the coverage of the students in the classroom. Photo courtesy New Wave Films.

Close-ups are a feature of the coverage of the students in the classroom. Photo courtesy New Wave Films.

The individual stories tell us about problems some students face that will be familiar to teachers of similar groups anywhere. One African girl is frightened to go ‘home’ to her parent’s country because she fears genital mutilation. Another is told that in Africa she would be lucky to get any education at all as a girl. A Chinese girl struggles to improve her French speech because she only speaks Mandarin to her mother and she can’t go out to socialise when her mother is at work in the evenings. We learn about the students partly from conversations between the teacher and the parents. For a UK audience it is interesting to hear an Irish woman discussing her son’s progress – she has had to move from Northern Ireland for family reasons. But we also see a talented young Latin American boy bring in his cello and play for the class (I think he is in Paris primarily to study music) and a girl from Ukraine singing.

The other possible reference point for the film might be some of the recent reality TV programmes on education – like the well-received Educating Yorkshire. But unlike these shows there is no direct-to-camera address and no long-running emotional story of triumph against the odds. There is no great emphasis on creating ‘characters’ who will become ‘heroes’ of the narrative. Having said that, the narrative does move to a climax but I won’t spoil what happens.

The press notes include an interview with the director and this is well worth reading. Here she explains what attracted her to wanting to explore what happens in this classroom:

These teenagers have already spent many years in their country of origin. It is a strong uprooting at this age. Once in France they are virtually adults because of their big responsibilities. They are sometimes in charge of the whole family as they are the only member to speak French. They are not yet in the post-migration phase, they are not fed up. They are not stigmatised or rejected for being part of any given category of immigrants. We know that this feeling of a dead end and this future can still happen, but we also know that everything is still possible. They are full of hope. I am perhaps showing a protected and ideal capsule, a utopia in action, but I also show a little theatre of our world in which energy and hope can produce miracles in the same way as the trust and reception provided to these youths . . .

This is a lovely film. Watch it and feel better about yourself and about the world. I’d like to think that UKIP voters and Daily Mail readers could watch the film and learn something but I can’t find any evidence that the Mail reviewed the film.

This trailer with English subs gives an idea of how the film works. Note the use of close-ups, focusing directly on the students and what they have to say:

We hope to screen this film as part of a new programme in Bradford – watch this space!

To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (UK 2014)

The old Pavilion building - autumn 2014.

The old Pavilion building – autumn 2014.

This film by Mark Fell and Luke Fowler is a commission by the Pavilion and Hyde Park Picture House. The film was premiered at the Picture House on November 22nd: there will be further screening throughout the year. The cinema and the Pavilion have already collaborated on several art projects, revolving in some way round film and cinema. The audience was welcomed by Wendy Cook, General Manager of the Hyde Park, and Gill Park, the Director of the Pavilion. Gill commented that the Pavilion tends to works that ‘rub against the grain’, certainly the case with this film. Essentially the film is an example of montage – often rapidly changing and frequently discontinuous images and sound. The material in the film is worked up from an Archive project, including photographs, reports, minutes, publicity and associated materials, to which have been added, contemporary film, interviews and contemporary sound.

The Pavilion project was sited in the Park alongside the main Leeds University Campus and opened in 1983, and has just celebrated the thirtieth anniversary.

The Pavilion was formed in 1983 with the stated aim of being the first photography collective dedicated to representing and supporting the production of women’s photography. Against a backdrop of heightened social, political and economic conflicts, the Pavilion set about turning the prevailing patriarchal image-culture inside-out.

The project has suffered ups and down, ‘a contested history’, and the loss of the original venue. That currently stands closed in the Park.

It took me a little time to get into the film but then it became increasingly interesting. The film uses 1200 black and white photographs from the archive filmed on a rostrum camera. Alongside these are a series of interview with artists who were part of or have some connection with the original Pavilion. And there are montages of material from the archive including local and more general material. And there is contemporary footage of people and places.

The photographs cover a range of subjects and settings: women’s’ activities, urban settings, the seaside, Yorkshire Gritstone . . . The parallel archive material is equally varied: minutes and such like from the early days of the Pavilion; posters and publicity; feminist leaflets and publications:

Most of the material is from the 1980s – and the local items bring back memories from that period: a shot through the window of the Victoria pub; the Hyde Park and University surrounds; a Punjabi teacher in Chapeltown; issues of Leeds Other Paper; The Video Vera project; the Leeds Animation Workshop . . .

The sense of what constituted The Pavilion and its significance relies extensively on the interviews. Each participant has selected a photograph [in one case two] from the archive. They describe this for the audience, though we only see the pictures tangentially. One participant commented on the difficulties she found in doing this.

These reminiscences include the developing work of the project: at one point an interviewee comments;

We really believed that working class women would come along and they didn’t.

Later the types of funding available favoured:

Working with the communities nearby – including Asian women and the children.

A central struggle against the objectification of women in photographic art produced examples of work in which young women were ‘demure, saucy and sexualised.’

The limitations of the industry reminded one interviewee that a woman always had

to work harder than anybody else.

The politics of feminism in the period are discussed. A young photographer commented when women criticised the work of another

I was scared of taking photographs of women because of that sort of comment.

And the politics of the colonized or imperialised countries raised questions about the autonomy of the subject, as a young woman,

someone who had little say in the photograph or how it was used.

An artist who presented a travelling exhibition of work shot on the Falls Road in Belfast recalled being arrested on the way to Rochdale and the exhibition being disrupted by a bomb threat.

The interviewees discussed theory, practice and important texts in the feminist movement. Laura Mulvey’s ideas get a mention as do the ideas and arguments by Selma James. I was intrigued by a reference to the ’Soviet Union’s first sexual manual.’ The journals and venues of the time appear, Radical Feminist, Who Needs Nurseries, The Other Cinema, . . . and the alternatives, The Kodak Girl ads, Marilyn standing over an air event, . . .

Towards the end there is a clip from the BBC Calendar in 1985 which offered a short profile the project. The presented welcomed ‘the ladies’: unperturbed they offered a concise description of the aims and work of The Pavilion.

Amat photo

The combination of different strands or changing or even competing images and sounds builds up into a strong sense of the ethos and achievements of the project. Given the ‘contested history’ there is amply space for audiences to assess and develop their own interpretations of this.

The photographs were filmed on a 16mm rostrum camera and much of the archive material is also from rostrum work. The editing of this with film and interviews builds up a complex tapestry of memories and meanings. There is a memorable shot of the camera person shot in a mirror.

Whilst the images are in a form of montage much of the sound is asynchronous. At times there is also accompanying music and rhythms. For this première the sound track was relayed directly into the auditorium with staff moving the speakers at different points. For audiences sound often lack the specific spatial sense one can gain from images: I found this particular technique imaginative and very effective.

The work of the research and production teams was headed by Mark Fell, an indisciplinary artist, and Luke Fowler, who frequently works in 16mm. This makes it a feminist project directed by two men, interesting but also contestable. Two of the participants did just this. At a few points we also heard the questions put to the interviewees and there were occasions when they also contested the nature of the questions themselves. These add to the rich complexity of the film. It also engages with the changes in the feminist movements that have occurred since the original founding of The Pavilion.

I was impressed both with the film and the presentation – I shall certainly revisit it. Happily there was a substantial audience to enjoy the evening. There are at least six more screenings at the Hyde Park Picture House in November and December. The actual film runs for about 70 minutes and is well worth the time spent.

Concerning Violence, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, USA, 2014.


The Leeds International Festival Catalogue describes this as an ‘essay film, rather than a documentary. This places the film in that cinematic discourse best represented by the masterworks of Chris Marker. Like those it offers a studied ambiguity that can and should stimulate the viewer’s thoughts as well as their emotions. It combines recently discovered archive footage covering wars of decolonisation in Africa from the 1960s through to the 1990s accompanied by quotation from Franz Fanon’s seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth. What follows is a short response to a complex film and I plan to return with a longer engagement on the Third Cinema Revisited Blog.

The film is divided into ‘Nine scenes from the anti-imperialist self-defence’. In the course of the film we see many sequences of the white settlers in various occupied territories, mainly lording it over the oppressed and exploited black natives. We also see various conflicts between National Liberation Movements and the colonial armies. There is extensive coverage of the struggles in what has become Angola. Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Each sequence also presents quotations from the Fanon’s book. This provides comment, analysis and ironic counterpoint to the comments of the white settlers, the colonial military, and the predominantly western journalist covering events. There are also extensive interviews with and comments by black natives, including those involved in the armed struggle. Refreshingly there is much screen space given to women, both as part of the exploited indigenous people but also as participants in the armed struggle.

Notably we also hear readings from the writings of Amilcar Cabral  [Guinea Bissau] and an interview with Tomas Sankara [Burkino Faso]. There is also an interview with Robert Mugabe from the early days after the ZANU-PF victory. Whilst there are many male voices on the soundtrack the frequent quotations are read by an Afro-American woman, Lauryn Hill.

Most of the footage was shot in 1.37:1, some in colour, and some in black and white. But the opening and closing sequences are in 1.85:1 and the footage in the older ratio is on a DCP, letter-boxed within this frame. There is also extensive use of music, both diegetic and non-diegetic. Unfortunately, [as in common in foreign language documentary] the songs are generally not translated in subtitles. There are a number of scenes of violence and horrific wounds: also of colonial atrocities.

The Director, Göran Hugo Olsson, is quoted in the Catalogue:

When you see these films today you are struck by how biased they were, and how the filmmakers were totally lost in their political views. The use of older archive material reveals perspectives and prejudices that are clear, enabling viewers to see beyond them.

I was impressed by the film. The selection of material, and especially the way that it is edited into a coherent and very effective arguments is finely done. It works well both as a film and as propaganda [expressing complex ideas supporting the movement]. One caveat that I had was that the film has added an introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a writer regularly included in anthologies of ‘post-colonial’ writings: [neo-colonial would be more accurate]. She places the work of Franz Fanon with a short biopic of his life and work. She correctly rejects the notion that he popularised support for violence: the colonized must, of necessity, use violence because of ‘the absolute non-response‘ of the colonisers.

She also makes the point that Fanon’s ideas, many of them developed in the historic liberation struggle by the Algerians against the French occupation, need developing in the present day and situation. However I think she offers only a partial account of Fanon’s politics in The Wretched of the Earth. Moreover, I think her opening remarks offer a reading of the film which is not borne out. She comments on gender and appears to suggest that ‘violence against women’ is committed both by the colonial movement and the anti-colonial movements. But the film depicts armed women who state, “We are on the same level as men.”  The film does undercut some of Fanon’s reliance on male nouns and adjectives when passages are read over images of armed women fighters. But also note that he writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

And both images and quotations undercut the values expanded by the colonialists.

I think Spivak also overlooks the centrality of class in Fanon’s work. But this seems to me something that is at least underdeveloped in the film, especially in the Conclusion where we hear Fanon’s maxims for the future of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist revolution. Fanon writes about the class forces in play after the end of direct occupation: a quotation from these comments would have made sense of the situation of Mugabe and Zimbabwe.

The quotations from Fanon are brief, mainly single sentences. Some the context of his position is often lost. This is the case when the film makes the point that the colonised black people use violence against their own: but Fanon is writing about the situation of the native under colonialism and before the development of an anti-colonial consciousness. One hopes that the film will stimulate viewers to read Fanon’s book – though I fear many may believe they have been provided with a sufficient grasp of his thought. The film’s title and focus is on one aspect of Fanon’s book, violence: this is where The Wretched of the Earth commences, but it goes a long way beyond this.

Even so this is a film that is unlikely to leave you unmoved and should certainly stimulate you. The audience at the Hyde Park Picture House showed their response with applause at the film’s end. This is definitely a film to see. It is getting a UK distribution [probably limited] by Dogwoof. I hoped to see it again, and did, [see].


London Symphony

lLondon Sym

This film, currently in production, adopts the style of early film – image and music but no dialogue or commentary. This takes the planned film back to the classic period of the 1920s and 1920s when skilled documentary filmmakers produced a series of portraits of great cities. However this film is a documentary and the makers specifically note the ‘city films’ of the 1920s and 1930s as influences. The filmmakers reference Dziga Vertov, Walter Ruttman and Joris Ivens as early influences and then add the important films from the British documentary filmmakers pre-war. The films in question offer poetic but also in some sense ‘realist’ portraits of urban centres. In fact, whilst there have been a number of earlier documentary portraying London, the city has not yet received the cinematic attention of, say, Berlin, Symphony of a City (1923).

The documentary films of the 1920s tended to rely on state funding or on the support of wealthy individuals (like the Surrealists). This film will be contemporary in another way. It is relying on what is termed ‘crowd funding’ – a number of individuals and groups contributing amounts to towards the budget. This, of course, is an aesthetic and cinematic investment rather than a financial one. But there is also likely to offer a high satisfaction quotient when the film is finally finished and available for screenings.

The film has already entered production but ongoing funding is required. There is a lot of information about the proposed film and the funding methods on the website. This project focuses on the metropolis, but if successful we might (hopefully) see city films from other major British cities.


Here is Hungerford Bridge, the ‘pilot’ for London Symphony: