French director Julie Bertuccelli’s classroom documentary School of Babel examines twenty-four foreign teenagers’ struggles as they adapt to a new life, culture and language in France.
Educating the City of Light by Laura Bennett
School of Babel (La Cour de Babel) studies the classe d’accueil, or reception class, of a Parisian secondary school. Under the supervision and tutelage of teacher Brigitte Cervoni, the twenty-four students from as many countries discuss their experiences, face up to the challenges of adapting to new country, and form lasting bonds.
With a linguistic variety of Babylonian proportions, they have all come to France for different reasons. As one of the group says, “everyone has their own story”: perhaps their parents came in search of better job opportunities; one girl is the daughter of an ambassador and is at risk of FGM if she returns home to West Africa; another is awaiting asylum; one boy and his family fled to France after neo-Nazi persecution in their home country; while another is a talented musician who has come to France to study the cello. Their journey to the 10th arrondissement began in every corner of the globe: Brazil, Senegal, Serbia, Chile, Tunisia, Sri Lanka, Ukraine and even Northern Ireland.
Bertuccelli follows the class through the full academic year as the trees in the playground mirror the passing of the seasons, from the foreboding grey of the start of the autumn term to the blossoming of spring as the end-of-year exams approach. In terms of the full curriculum, the students of the classe d’accueil attend many of the same lessons as their fellow students when it comes to other subjects, yet have a greater concentration of French tuition under Mme Cervoni’s guidance. Ultimately, their goal is to move into the standard stream and to shake off what some of them see the stigma attached to these special lessons.
Despite the inevitable disagreements between these teenagers, forced to shape themselves into unfamiliar surroundings, their newly-arrived status is the one thing they share. In the middle of the year, Maryam, an articulate girl whose family are seeking asylum from Libya, is forced to say an abrupt goodbye to her classmates as her family uproot themselves yet again to take a social security apartment in a different part of France. For most of the group, their new life in France is certainly not an easy one. They struggle to adjust, unsure which language to speak at home and often having to interpret for parents with limited French. Mme Cervoni is sympathetic to their challenging family situations; she listens understandingly at parent-teacher meetings as the issues her pupils face at home become apparent. Many of them have heavy responsibilities to bear and are forced to mature beyond their years as their parents work away from home or late into the night. Some simply struggle with cultural differences: Xin, a timid Chinese girl is reluctant to express herself in either her native or adopted tongue, blaming the fact that people don’t talk as much in China as they do in France.
Julie Bertuccelli is clearly a passionate director with an impeccable pedigree. The daughter of Jean-Louis Bertuccelli, she has also worked as an assistant director to Otar Iosseliani, Krzsytof Kieslowski and Bertrand Tavernier. She came up with the idea for School of Babel when chairing a jury for a school film competition in which the inspiring Mme Cervoni and another of her classes were taking part. On meeting her new class the following year, Bertuccelli was so taken by their energy that she began filming immediately, before receiving funding. She observed the class twice a week over an academic year, accumulating hours of footage but focusing only on goings-on in the classroom, a microcosm for the lives of these teenagers beyond the confines of the school. She remained resolute in not shying away from the group’s discussion of sensitive topics such as religion and politics.
Bertuccelli felt that choosing teenagers as her subjects provided a greater sense of uprooting than if she had focused on younger children: “these teenagers have already spent many years in their country of origin…[in France] they are not yet in the post-immigration phase, they are not fed up. They have not been stigmatised or rejected for being part of any given category of immigrants…they are full of hope”. With the issue of immigration currently hitting the headlines across Europe, School of Babel offers a heartening take on the human story of the métissage of modern France. Its director hopes that it will thwart prejudices and pre-conceived ideas, leading to greater debate on all sides. However, this is not an overtly political film but one that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions, in any language.
School of Babel (La Cour de Babel) is released in the UK on 5 December 2014