School of Babel (La cour de Babel, France 2014)

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 (‘la cour‘ of the French title) 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!

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