School of Babel (La Cour de Babel): Rome Review

A straightforward and affecting documentary about a class of diverse immigrant kids who speak little to no French.

French director Julie Bertuccelli's non-fiction film looks at a class of immigrant kids in Paris's 10th arrondissement.

A special class for young immigrant children in France is the subject of French director Julie Bertuccelli’s non-fiction feature, School of Babel (La Cour de Babel).

The footage, shot over the course of a year at the Granges-aux-Belles secondary school in Paris’s mixed 10th arrondissement, focuses on a special “reception class,” where students who speak little to no French are welcomed and taught the language as well as regular school subjects, with special attention paid to trying to get everyone up to the level of their French peers so they can then eventually join the school's regular classes. Straightforward, affecting and insightful, the film at times plays like a documentary companion to Laurent Cantet’s Palme d’Or winner, The Class, even though the kids depicted there were (semi-)fictional and not immigrants with special educational needs.

School of Babel, which had its European premiere at the Rome Film Festival, will be released in France in March 2014 and should be able to drum up significant media attention. It will be a harder but not impossible sell abroad, where films such as Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and To Have and Pascal Plisson’s recent On the Way to School have proven that there’s a potential niche market for French films about education even beyond Francophone venues.

In one of the first scenes, and apparently also one of the class’s first lessons, the teacher, Brigitte Cervoni, asks her pupils, ages 11-15, to write “bonjour” in their own language, an effective ice-breaker that allows each child, some of them with barely any notion of French, to introduce themselves with something they do know and explain something about their background. Tellingly, even with such a seemingly straightforward exercise, a heated discussion already erupts, with a pupil from Senegal suggesting “Salam Aleykum” is used in Wolof to say hello and an Egyptian-Libyan student refusing to believe any non-Muslim would ever use this type of greeting anywhere.

Bertuccelli, the daughter of Ramparts of Clay director Jean-Louis Bertuccelli, is better known for her fiction features Since Otar Left and The Tree with Charlotte Gainsbourg but actually started her directorial career with the TV documentary The World in Fusion.

She does her own camerawork here and is also present at parent-teacher meetings in which the progress of the children is discussed with the parents or guardians and the pupils, with the latter occasionally having to act as underage interpreters. These conversations reveal more about the families’ backgrounds and some of the reasons for emigrating, which range from getting a top education as a cellist for a Venezuelan boy to a Jewish family’s persecution by a group of Serbian Neo-Nazis to the fear of female excision in Guinea.

Some children have come to join their parents who were already working in France, including Xin, who lived for 10 years with her grandmother in China and did not see her mother once until she finally came to Paris. Being a child and growing up would already be plenty difficult without having to deal with traumas such as these on top of that. Thankfully, Bertuccelli allows the material to speak for itself, never editing or zooming in to heighten the drama. There are frank discussions about thorny subjects such as religion and the youngsters’ hopes and fears and it’s clear from the footage that they bond over their shared status as outsiders.

The kids themselves also make their own film about themselves for a student film festival and this where things become a little confusing, as some of the footage spied in the class’s film is also in Bertuccelli’s film, so it’s not entirely clear who shot what and for whom. That said, it’s a great bonding experience for the kids and their work even goes on to win a couple of awards.

Mostly heard offscreen rather than actually seen, Cervoni is an almost saint-like teacher with a lot of experience in the field; she has even co-authored a book about teaching French to immigrant children. The teary closing scenes pack an emotional wallop not only for the audience and the kids but also for Cervoni, for whom this batch of kids was her last class.

The French title, La Cour de Babel, is a play on the Tower of Babel (“La Tour de Babel”), with “cour” actually meaning schoolyard, here glimpsed in brief interludes set to Olivier Daviaud's score. Incidentally, "cour" also sounds like “cours,” which translates as “lessons.”

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Out of Competition/Alice in the City)
Production companies: Les Films du Poisson, Sampek Productions, Arte France Cinema
Director: Julie Bertuccelli
Director of photography: Julie Bertuccelli
Music: Olivier Daviaud
Editor: Josiane Zardoya
Sales: Pyramide International
No rating, 89 minutes.

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