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.
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!
This is one of the films from the Silent Era noted in the earlier preview of Leeds International Film Festival. Now the Festival Catalogue is available and it notes the film will be screened from a DCP. This means we will get a theatrical standard presentation together with a live accompaniment on the Town Hall Organ. This will be the sort of event for which the Concert Auditorium provides a perfect setting.
The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. This version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederland Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. The latter are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).
Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.
Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.
The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama; romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.
The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though this is nearly three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War. And as in 1919 the audience will find the drama and emotion of the film heightened by the live musical accompaniment.
Céline Sciamma is about to become much better known as her new film Bande de filles (Girlhood) is currently drawing enthusiastic audiences and critical attention in Paris. Before I review that film, after it appeared at the London Film Festival, I thought it might be useful to look at Sciamma’s second feature, Tomboy.
All three of Sciamma’s features involve questions about gender roles – the first, Water Babies (France 2007) focused on 15 year-old girls at a swimming pool. The ‘tomboy’ of the title in her second film is Laure (Zoé Héran) a skinny 10 year-old whose family is moving to a new flat somewhere in the Île-de-France region. It’s summer and the area is a fantastic playground for the local children with woods and a lake as well as a tarmac football pitch. Laure quickly meets Lisa – a girl possibly a year or two older but certainly much more developed in her progress through puberty. Laure tells Lisa that her name is Mikael and allows her to think that her new friend is a boy. At home, Laure’s mother is heavily pregnant with her third child (a boy) and Laure’s younger sister, 6 year-old Jeanne, wants to join the gang of children playing outside. At first Laure refuses to take her along – she might accidentally reveal the deception about Laure’s gender identity. But of course Laure will be ‘exposed’ at some point anyway . . .
I spent an interesting time on IMDB and other sites looking at reactions to the film. Although most were very positive, there were one or two angry commentators from LGBTQ communities who accuse Sciamma of not knowing what she is doing or misrepresenting transgendered people. I don’t know anything about Ms Sciamma’s gender orientation but I do think that she’s been extremely careful not to present a polemic or a campaign or to take a moral stance on anything in particular. (As an aside, Tomboy was distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures which specialises in LGBT films and ‘World Cinema’ more generally.) Audiences are entitled to ‘read’ Laure/Mikael’s behaviour in whatever way they wish. My take is that the reaction of Laure to Lisa’s opening question (implying that Laure is a boy) is to simply run with the mistake because it gives her a chance to experience being a boy as a gender role.
There are a couple of interesting observations to make, however. The imminent arrival of a baby brother, who will be able to do the things that Laure thinks she is prevented from doing (e.g. playing football) must cause her some distress/pressure. As one of the IMDB users points out, it might be that Laure has been encouraged by her father to do ‘masculine’ things like drink beer and steer the family car. The scenes that seem to have caused the most offence refer to the actions of the mother (who is faced with the consequences of Laure’s actions and worries what will happen when she starts at her new school at the end of the holidays). Earlier in the film there is a gnomic reference to the family always being on the move. Has Laure done this before? There is no explanation (unless I missed it) as to why they have moved so often.
Whatever we make of these controversies, it is clear that Céline Sciamma is a talented filmmaker. Tomboy is a short feature (82 mins) but it is beautifully-paced. The children’s play is handled very well and they all perform in a natural way. The little sister is perhaps a tad precocious, but such children exist and she is actually quite charming. This is an example of using a small budget wisely and with good imagination, taking a simple story idea and following it through with wit and humour and compassion. I’ve got to go and find Water Lilies now. If you haven’t seen Tomboy it has been on BBC4 (so may reappear) and it is available on DVD/Blu-ray from Peccadillo.
Chronicle of a Summer is one of the most significant documentaries ever made; as stated at the start of the film:
‘This film was not played by actors, but lived by men and women who have given a few moments of their lives to a new experiment in cinema truth.”
The last two words in their original French, cinéma vérité, became emblematic of the type of film they created. Although, like Direct Cinema which was being developed for television in North America at the time, cinéma vérité used developments in lightweight equipment to shoot events as they happened, filmmaker Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin (an anthropologist), were not suggesting that they were passive bystanders merely relaying the action. They didn’t try to disguise the fact that audiences were watching a film and both directors appear onscreen talking to the participants about a range of contemporary issues such as the Algerian war and racism.
The film begins with a conversation with Marceline Loridan about her feelings of being involved in the documentary. Initially her role is as a vox pop interviewer asking passers-by if they are happy. These early scenes are shot candidly with poorly composed framing. After this the film focuses on six participants: three students, an African, an Italian, a car worker and a union man. Rouch and Morin are trying to gauge what ‘France’ thinks about the world in the summer of 1960.
The film’s ability to capture these spontaneous conversations was no doubt extremely impressive at the time. From the perspective of now the technical brilliance is somewhat lost however the snapshot of the time ensures that the film remains vital viewing.
For example, Marceline, it transpires, is a survivor from Auschwitz and in a harrowing monologue she recounts her time there. This is shot at a deserted Place du Concorde apparently with her talking to herself (her lips are clearly moving some of the time) whilst the camera moves backwards in front of her. It could be coincidental, but when she talks of being a little girl the camera noticeably recedes from her, making her look relatively small (see above). This image bridges the moment with the past when she was separated from her father in the concentration camp; it is an emotionally devastating sequence.
Later when Mary Lou is talking about her fears of being alone, the close up of her visibly distressed face, though she is trying to smile (put on a ‘brave’ face), portrays the raw emotion she is feeling. It may seem to be exploitative however Morin, who’s talking to her, says we shouldn’t talk about it and the scene cuts immediately. An African student, Landry talks about how he’d like Africans to be appreciated for more than their dancing; he is portrayed as an African explorer in France, a brilliant post-colonial characterisation.
The film concludes with reflections on itself, first from the participants and then Morin and Rouch in conversation. The participants’ views are fascinating as, after they have seen a rough cut, they appear to disagree with the meaning of what they have seen (I say ‘appear’ because we are obviously seeing what Morin and Rouch decided to include in the final version though I don’t doubt the veracity). Sam Di Iorio’s excellent Criterion essay (here) quotes Morin’s reaction to this:
Morin eventually saw the contradictory reactions it generated as proof of its strength: “My dream that this film would end with mutual understanding failed,” he wrote in 2010, “but its ultimate success lay in showing how difficult it is to understand others.”
And this is part of the film’s greatness, showing that truth is a dialogic concept and not absolute. Clearly, I’m strongly recommending this great film.