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The French have always had a way with words, which is why the annual college concours Eloquentia, or eloquence competitions, seem to have the same status there that the Final Four does in the U.S.
But not everyone is a born orator, nor are they necessarily given the tools to express themselves — especially if one comes from a family where French isn’t even the first language. In the rabble-rousing documentary Speak Up (A voix haute – La Force de la parole), director Stephane de Freitas focuses on a group of mixed race students who partake in the Eloquentia contest for the first time. Most of them have never spoken in public, but by the time the film is over, they could give Charles de Gaulle a run for his money.
Set at the Universite Paris 8 in the northern suburbs of Paris, the doc — which was co-directed by Ladj Ly (who also served as one of the cinematographers) — starts off on the eve of the final verbal battle, then flashes back to show the long and sometimes arduous training process that the Eloquentia contestants go through at the hands of several teachers. Speech, body language, voice control and even slam poetry capabilities are all studied and perfected, with certain professors — especially the feisty lawyer Bertrand Perier — laying on tons of pressure to get viable results.
There’s nothing new about watching young people being pushed to the brim onscreen, but the four finalists in A voix haute are not your typical French speakers. One of them used to live homeless on the streets of Paris; another dons a headscarf and considers herself a Muslim feminist; yet another lost her parents and transforms her speeches into method acting sessions; and finally there’s Eddy, an aspiring actor who walks more than 12 miles each day to commute to class from a house in the middle of the woods.
What’s impressive about this group is the level of creativity they bring to their public discourses, finding clever ways to harp upon extremely vague philosophical topics like “Is reality worth more than dreams?” or “Is the best yet to come?” (The Eloquentia contests, which began in 2012, were partially inspired by the Concours de la Conference oration competitions for lawyers who are members of the Paris Bar.)
Unlike in the U.S., where speech classes are typically part of a high school or college curriculum, in France it’s usually the professor who talks while everyone else listens. Expressing oneself is not something that’s often taught in school, so giving a voice to people — especially those from the problematic banlieue of Seine-Saint-Denis — rarely heard in the media or elsewhere is practically a political act on the part of the Eloquentia organizers, and de Freitas (who is one of its founders) thrillingly chronicles the results.
In the end, it’s less of a question of who the winner is than of seeing an entire class of kids being boosted to a place where they can finally speak their minds the way the powers-that-be do on a daily basis. With the presidential elections coming up in a week, and with the major candidates all hailing from “typically French” backgrounds, Speak Up reveals that there may be a new, far more ethnically diverse generation ready to step up and take the reins. You just have to listen to them.
Production company: My Box Productions
Cast: Leila Alaouf, Eddy Moniot, Elhadj Toure, Souleila Mahiddin
Director-screenwriter: Stephane de Freitas
Co-director: Ladj Ly
Producers: Harry Tordjman, Anna Tordjman
Directors of photography: Ladj Ly, Timothee Hilst
Editors: Jessica Menendez, Timothee Hilst
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