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Documentary Review - School of Babel

A year long look at a class of non French speaking immigrants in a special Parisian school.

Directed by: Julie Bertucelli


School of Babel is a pleasingly low-key and direct documentary by director Julie Bertucelli. Presented without fanfare or even context, whatever you learn is you what pick up by watching and listening to its subjects. There is no narration, no expository caption cards, no deliberate presence of the film makers. The subject of the film is a class of children – aged 14 to 16 - who are all recently immigrated into France, with or without their parents. The class is a remedial French language class intended to bring their skills in the native language up to a working standard.
The kids are from all over the shop: Mauritius, Egypt, Serbia, China, Morocco, the list goes on, and the film begins quite literally with everyone saying ‘Hello’. There is no apparent deliberate staging: all footage is in situ, so at the opening, we are introduced to the kids and given insights into their respective temperaments as they are invited up to the whiteboard to write ‘Hello’ or the equivalent in their mother tongues. The dizzying variety of scripts that accumulates on the board gives a direct sense of the challenges confronting their teacher.
Although she is off-camera and merely heard for what seems like most of the film, the class’ teacher Brigitte Cervoni is, in a sense, the star of the show. The film is a thorough tour of her complex stewardship of this class of youngsters. Some of the kids are angry, some are sad, some are utterly self-contained and silent. One boy will not speak French outside of class. He doesn’t “want to forget”. Madame Cervoni’s role is to integrate them as a class and then provide the avenue for them to connect with the larger student body.
Some viewers may find the more implicit subtext concerning immigration and the fate of immigrants to be politically divisive. Through the children's own testimony, and the inclusion of footage of Parent-Teacher meetings, a sense of the challenges of economic migrancy emerges. To its credit (possibly), the film does not editorialise or directly politicise matters. It’s Show, Don’t Tell all the way.
Arguably, films of this type are most valuable to people who are conducting research of some kind or who are strongly motivated to relate their own personal experience to what they see on the screen, without cues or direct judgement calls from the director. Those who come to it uninitiated, with no great love for the documentary format, may be bored by the unrelenting fly-on-the-wall quality. They may get a surprise at the cumulative effect of this naturalistic approach. The kids' emotions suddenly rise up and the audience may well find that they instantly share them. This is immensely patient film-making on the part of Bertucelli and her crew. It’s on you, the viewer, to sit it out for the sake of empathy, in contrast to the Alex Gibney-style ‘film lecture’ or investigative reportage type documentaries that seem more prevalent at the moment. The score by Oliver Daviaud is light and charming and unobtrusive until needed, at which point it catches the moment skilfully, with a light touch.
Overall, this is a worthy film, which is of a wider appeal than it may seem even in the early stages of viewing.
7/10


Rúairí Conneely
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